May 19th, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

You know, I was starting to think that “family movie” meant any movie with a stupid, predictable plot and cheesy one-liners posing as dialog—oh, and no violence, sex or swearing (you’re only hope for a moment’s distraction). You know the type, the endurance tests that make you feel as antsy and desperate for escape as a three-year-old in church. Then Dreamworks Animation came out with How to Train Your Dragon and, I’ve got to say, this one does what I wish every family movie would do. It entertains your whole family.

The story operates at different levels to accommodate its audience of three- to 99-year-olds. At its most accessible, How to Train is about a tween named Hiccup and a dragon he finds and names Toothless (although the reason is weak). At a slightly deeper level, it’s about Hiccup struggling to find his place among the large, loud-mouthed Vikings of Berk with a long-standing tradition of slaying dragons. Given his smallish size and soft-spoken demeanor, Hiccup was having a hard time fitting in, but after he befriends Toothless, blending with the natives (without compromising his own values) becomes even more difficult. On yet another level, the story is about Hiccup trying to please his father Stoic, chief and penultimate warrior, and about Stoic trying (in a big, loveable lout kind of way) to connect with his son.

The story flows with dialog of the “Mommy kissing Santa Clause” sort: whatever your age, you’re smiling, but the reasons depend on you age. Little kids munch on their popcorn and giggle away at those silly Vikings. Meanwhile, bigger kids and grownups are laughing out loud at moments when the popcorn munchkins are staring at the screen straight-faced and blinking. It’s like a secret code.

The animation in How to Train is cool—even in 2D, the only option at the one theater in Alamogordo, New Mexico where I saw the film. (Don’t ask.) Some of the shots are so beautiful they make you wish the real world were as hyper-crisp as this cinematic one, like the overhead shot of the lake where Toothless hangs out. The characters are cute without being nauseating, even the scarey but not-too-scarey dragons. Toothless, for example, looks a bit like Stitch, which makes him cute and non-threatening but not cute-sy (sparing teens the humiliation otherwise associated with liking him).

How to Train is based on the book by Cressida Crowell, but seeing the movie won’t spoil the book. The similarities stop at characters’ names and the boy-struggling-to-blend theme, which left me wondering: why all the changes? In the book, Toothless is an unruly, rat-sized dragon with a bad attitude and no teeth. Print-version Hiccup has red hair and a mother. Gobber is a loud-mouthed meanie, nothing like the thick-skinned movie warrior with a heart bigger than his biceps and sage advice that would make Dr. Phil proud. The differences are varied and inexplicable.

But who cares? It’s a great movie for your whole family.

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This Weeks Tip

Want to stop the pup from chewing on your favorite flowers? Sprinkle them with cayenne pepper. This sneezy spice acts as a repellant for dogs — and may other mammals, too.