Review in a Hurry: I know, I know. Another story about dragons. But not so fast. Swift action, a smart script, stunning animation and capable set of voice actors come together for a movie that soars.
The Bigger Picture: Meet Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a fledgling Viking so gawky that a puffy fur vest and boots only make him look scrawnier. Hiccup is the son of Stoic (Gerard Butler), who is everything that his son is not: a brilliant side of beef with a long track record against the traditional Viking enemy: Dragons.
Dragons—dubbed with terrifying breed names like Night Fury and Silent Death—invade the town regularly, picking off cottony sheep and setting fire to pretty much everything else. Hiccup, wanting to fit in, aims to kill dragons someday, just like his dad. Trouble is, he doesn't appear to be very good at it.
Turns out, Hiccup isn't so much a dragon killer as a dragon whisperer. After downing a mysterious inky-black Night Fury one night, Hiccup tracks it down and frees it, creating a friendship borne of equal parts common interest and lunches of raw fish.
If the black dragon Toothless looks familiar, you may be a connoisseur of good character design; animator Chris Sanders, who created Stitch for Lilo & Stitch, is a co-director here.
Sanders elicits the same rounded head and nubby teeth that made the Disney alien so unforgettable. Unlike way too many movie animal companions, Toothless has his own agenda and doesn't bother with sentimental crap, which makes his sleek little head all that much more endearing. One wonders if Sanders, or someone else close to the production, has a very young, very energetic house cat.
Critics may quibble with the voice casting—why are Stoic and Gobber the town blacksmith (Craig Ferguson) Scottish, and Hiccup and his love interest, Astrid (America Ferrera) not? But, eh, it's a cartoon, and the voice actors, with only a couple of exceptions, avoid the smug, contemporary delivery style that has made other Dreamworks animation titles (Shrek, anyone?) so insufferable.
In fact, almost everything about this movie feels fresh and original in Sanders's hands. The animation is some of the best we've seen since Monsters, Inc.—some might even say Avatar—and there are plenty of jokes for the grownups as well as the kids. But it's the core relationship between dork and dragon—no sap, just two solid characters—that makes the film more than your average kid flick.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Without giving away a spoiler, the end includes a bit of plot that shows admirable braveness on the part of the producers and studio; queasy or overprotective parents may not agree.
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