In the Viking village of Berk, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the unlikeliest hero imaginable.
Surrounded by burly, bearded Norsemen, Hiccup is a clumsy flyweight whose every effort to help the village fight the many airborne attacks by hordes of dragons backfires. But when he wounds the feared Night Fury dragon with a one-in-a-million shot—and realizes he doesn't have it in him to kill—a curious friendship between boy and dragon is born.
How to Train Your Dragon is based on the popular series of children's novels by British author Cressida Cowell, and there are plenty of volumes DreamWorks can return to down the road, even a prequel (Hiccup the Seasick Viking). Supposing the movie does well at the box office—and it certainly did on its opening weekend—the studio might see this as an opportunity to pick up where Shrek leaves off for two reasons: Shrek winds down this summer, and they're two franchises cut from the same cloth.
The good news is How to Train Your Dragon is the kind of story, with the kind of characters, audiences will want to see more of in the next few years. That's a sign of a good film in a lot of cases: Would you spend two more hours with these same people? And the answer is yes.
This is the latest addition to the growing collection of big-budget fractured fairy tales, fantasy stories imbued with contemporary dialogue and humor. Because the film is based on previously published material, the story never feels empty or shows signs of struggle; the filmmakers dip into the work Cowell has already done to build Berk and the folklore of these dragons, giving a solid foundation from which to work. On top of that, the comedy is lightweight and easy. The jokes work visually for kids who may not get the humor, and they're strong enough to keep parents consistently entertained.
However, the animation is merely OK. That's one of the major differences between the DreamWorks cartoons and Pixar's work—well, that and consistently beautiful storytelling. DreamWorks simply aims to put four or more butts in seats at one time without getting too deep. The studio has been successful doing just that, without slaving away on every pixel. Here, the Vikings are well-drawn, but the dragons look absolutely silly. In fact, they look like they belong in separate movies.
On the plus side, the 3-D in How to Train Your Dragon is more vibrant and works better than it has in previous animated films like Up, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Monsters vs. Aliens. However, it's not mandatory to see the film in 3-D; a regular old movie screen will do just fine.
The strength of the film is the voice work. Baruchel is wonderfully awkward; as his warrior father, Gerard Butler wisely revisits King Leonidas from 300; and as the village blacksmith, talk-show host Craig Ferguson gets a few big laughs without ever going overboard. They keep a lively script moving without trying to be showstoppers.
It's no Up, but How to Train Your Dragon is an engaging, smart and ... well, animated piece of animation, blending a story that's easy to follow with a sense of humor more geared toward parents than their kids. Like the 3-D glasses that come with the more expensive tickets, How to Train Your Dragon is purely disposable, but it sets simple goals and slightly exceeds them.