While it doesn't have the heart, charm and wit of Kung Fu Panda (nor the replay staying power), How to Train Your Dragon has enough of each to complement its noisy, eye-popping visual wonders.
With much props to Joseph Campbell's storytelling theories, Dragon is the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the wussy teenage Viking who's better at inventing cool gadgets than he is at slaying dragons. His dad, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the island kingdom's kickass leader, who views the giant flying serpents who steal the tribe's livestock as mortal enemies. Cue the son-tries-to-impress-dad storyline. Determined to prove himself, Hiccup takes down the dreaded and never-seen "Night Fury" dragon with a net-shooting catapult. Only no one sees him do it. This leads the teen to search for his downed adversary. Cue the budding-friendship-between-misunderstood-enemies plot line. Not only do the two become best buds, the boy discovers dragons are like overgrown puppy dogs, puppy dogs ruled by a fearsome Godzilla-like king. Will Hiccup earn the respect and understanding of his people? Will the dragons be freed from the tyrannical ruler? Can Vikings and dragons just get along? How many ways can you spell yes?
Dragon is undemanding kiddie cinema but what it does it does awfully well. The characters endear, the action thrills, the story avoids the pitfalls of pop culture references and kitschy double entendres, and the photo-realistic animation is gorgeous, filled with stunning details and vibrant colors. In particular, scenes set around water give off a luminous depth that shows how far the technology has advanced in the last decade.
It's also nice to see 3-D used as more than a gee-whiz aesthetic. The dragon flight scenes are truly exhilarating, and, thankfully, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (who helmed the likewise plotted Lilo and Stitch) keep their dragons dragons, and not wise-ass stand-up comedians. Each is given a unique and wonderfully rendered physical personality.
It's only the human animations that fall short, with the Vikings sporting convincingly bristly beards but inexpressive faces. Hiccup is pretty boring to look at, especially when you compare him with Ratatouille's similarly imagined Linguine. The voice talent consistently delivers the goods — particularly Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson — but their avatars don't measure up.
And speaking of Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon takes thematic cues from Pocahontas (with a little E.T. thrown in for good measure). Only this time, the space marines are Vikings and the Na'vi are dragons. While there's nothing wrong with messages like believing in yourself (a kid flick standard) and not letting fear and ignorance lead you to condemn what you don't understand, the film doesn't really have anything new to offer on the subjects. Still, when your magnificently noisy, fiery message promotes tolerance and peace in our too-quick to fight culture, it's hard to quibble.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.