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Written by: Will Davies, Dean DuBlois, Chris Sanders, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell

Directed by: Dean DuBlois, Chris Sanders

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig

I don’t dislike children’s films, in fact I love many of them, but I am weary of vacuous, empty trash designed to collect parents money and distract kids. I find such films an insult to children, as though the filmmaker’s assume their audience can’t grapple with real ideas or complex storytelling. For this reason I particularly respect the films of Pixar, the animation studio that consistently produces films like Monsters Inc, WALL-E, Up, and all 3 Toy Story films, which have touched upon issues including old age, consumerism, loss, death, fear, and even the tragedy of a miscarriage. For the same reason, I am often dubious about upcoming projects from DreamWorks Animation Studios, who are responsible for empty nonsense such as Shark Tale, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, and all of the Shrek sequels and spin-offs. These movies tend to be flashy, goofy, loud and rarely have very much to say to the children that watch them. Because of this (perhaps unfair) distaste for DreamWorks films, I assumed that How to Train Your Dragon would be equally as irritating and mindless.

I finally got around to watching it this past weekend and I couldn’t have been more wrong. How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderful film and should be watched by all children. The film tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young stringbean of a Viking and the disgrace of his people. Hiccup is a scrawny, clumsy creative-type who doesn’t have the heart, muscle or coordination to kill a dragon. You see, the Vikings live on a barren island and are under constant threat of dragon attacks, so the main profession amongst this particular group of (Scottish?) Vikings is dragon slaying. Hiccup’s father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the leader of this village and the biggest, strongest, most brave, etc. Viking there is. During a dragon attack, Hiccup tries out his newest invention and actually lands a hit on one of the scariest types of dragons (a Night Fury), but nobody sees it happen and he gets yelled at for being in the way. Stoick places Hiccup in dragon-killing school under the tutelage of the one-armed Gobber (Craig Ferguson) but Hiccup barely has the ability to stay alive. When Hiccup goes in search of the Night Fury he shot, he finds it bound in the woods and unable to move. Hiccup and the dragon, which he names Toothless, begin a friendship of sorts and Hiccup secretly tames the dragon and learns to fly it.

This is a beautiful film with a wonderful sense of humour and a lot to teach. How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t go for any cheap laughs, or attempt to pander to children but rather finds its voice and attempts to speak with its younger audience. This is a film about being different and how to be comfortable with difference. It’s also a film about finding your own path and learning how to find yourself under the pressures of your parents’ expectations. The relationship between Hiccup and Stoick is finely crafted as Stoick’s own values are instantly a weight on the film without ever turning him into a bad guy. Stoick makes mistakes, like any parent, but it’s always clear that he is only ever trying to do what he thinks is best based on what he knows about the world.

Like so many films these days that are presented primarily in 3D, How to Train Your Dragon has a bad habit of losing the momentum of some of its more thrilling sequences in order to include awkward shots designed to cash in on the 3D. The moments when Hiccup rides Toothless are completely engaging until strange pseudo-first person camera angles sabotage the excitement.  Beyond such moments, How to Train Your Dragon is a beautifully animated film, detailed landscapes are populated by characters that have just the right mix of realism and cartoonishness. Toothless is animated such that he moves like a cat, slinking over rocks and pouncing around, which makes him appear gentle and endearing. Other types of dragons are designed to move like snakes, spiders and even like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. In their nest the dragons move like bees and in flight they move like a colony of bats. This  clever design of the dragons functions to distinguish between friendly dragons and threatening ones.

I was surprised by How to Train Your Dragon, I wasn’t expecting such an intelligent and delightful film. The voice acting is very good, with an especially funny turn from late night host Craig Ferguson. The Celtic soundtrack makes the flying scenes magical, and helps distract from questions about why, exactly, are these Vikings Scottish? This movie is exciting, and engaging and knows how to tell a story without bogging down in the constant exposition that plagues so many children’s films. I suspect many kids who watch this film will leaving wishing that they too had a gentle Night Fury on which to fly.