There are only a couple of quiet moments in How to Train Your Dragon – it mostly consists of battles with winged beasties – but the movie makes the occasional calmness count.
One such sequence is integral to the story line, which is based on Cressida Cowell’s books and inspired by such boy-meets-horse stories as “The Black Stallion.” Hiccup, the skinny son of a brawny, Viking-type warrior, desperately wants to fit in among the brawling, dragon-slaying men of his village. This is not his true nature, however – he’s more of a tinkerer – and when he comes across a wounded dragon in the forest, he feels not fear and violence but wonder and compassion.
In an idyllic hollow – the fecund landscapes in this computer-animated fantasy seem to spring straight from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien – Hiccup and this dragon tiptoe around each other, trading gentle pets and cautious sniffs until they become, as only a young child and a pliant animal can, the best of friends.
This presents a problem, of course, for Hiccup’s people, who breathe hatred for dragons as hot as the creatures’ fire. The central conflict gives the movie a wrenching emotional underpinning, one which lends gravitas to its many, many action scenes.
And what action scenes. How to Train Your Dragon takes you swooping and swirling and spinning and twirling along with its dragons, and the experience is exhilarating. (I credit this more to the detailed animation than the 3-D technology, which I’d put in the Avatar category – not distracting, but not necessary either.) There is a climactic encounter with the mother of all dragons that’s awesome in terms of scale and complexity. After previous animated adventures from DreamWorks Animation such as Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens, I wonder: Are kids getting the best action movies these days?
How to Train Your Dragon isn’t only an action movie though. The reprieves are what elevate the film, including a mournful moment in the coda – I shouldn’t give it away – that was almost shocking in its starkness and bravery. Such thoughtful touches are far quieter than a dragon’s roar, but they speak volumes.