With the sequel coming out soon, I thought it would be a good time to write a review of the original. I'm just going to start off by saying that this is one of my all-time favourite animated movies, definitely the cream of the Dreamworks Animation crop in my eyes. As usual, this means that this is going to be a short review, because I'm much better at pointing out flaws than explaining why something works. I wonder what that says about me?
I've probably seen How To Train Your Dragon four times by now, and I would almost say that I enjoy it more every time. I attribute this to the great story and characters; it's a very strong story and the characters are all likeable and relateable. The later scenes with Hiccup and his father still bring a tear to my eye, while the ones with Hiccup and Toothless bring a warm soft smile to my face. Gobber is a fun character, and the while the other kids might come across as slightly annoying at first and aren't given much development time, they still grow on you. I'm hoping the sequel will give them a bit more depth, as the slightly shallow way they are portrayed here is probably the most negative thing I can think of to say about the whole movie - and yet it's something that I understand and believe was both necessary to maintain focus and potentially useful as it gives the series room to expand and explore.
Special mention here goes to Toothless, who is brilliantly designed - sleek and streamlined, emotive, intelligent and mischevious yet still an animal who realistically doesn't understand the situation at times as it pertains to humans, making him vulnerable, relatable to those of us who have pets. They were smart enough to avoid the trap of creating a "perfect" animal, like many children's movies do; an animal (typically a dog) that pretty much always does the right thing and always seems to know what's really going on even when the people around it don't, and that solves the all the human character's problems, etc. Toothless, in contrast, is much better thought out, much more realistic and believable.
I will say that it's not the funniest animated movie (Despicable Me 2 has far more laughs-per-minute, for example) or the most action packed (I don't think anyone outside of Japan has topped the Kung Fu Panda films for animated action), but what it lacks in slapstick humor or animated violence it more than makes up for with heart and genuine warmth. This is a movie where the message came first, rather than being slipped in later to try to add emotional weight.
Let me just say that I think the voice acting was brilliant. The casting decisions were perfect; while Jay Baruchel's voice as Hiccup comes across as strange and out of place at first, that's actually the genius of it all: Hiccup himself is so different from everyone around him, and his out-of-place voice and speech patterns make that instantly clear. His dry humor and sarcasm just doesn't register with most of the other characters because they just have so little in common that they don't understand him, yet I think it resonates with many of us who have found ourselves exasperated by larger problems or issues that no-one else seems to notice or care about.
Gobber is the only character who can, to some extent at least, understand Hiccup, so it's fitting that his voice, mannerisms, and character are likewise a little off; like Hiccup he is quite self-aware and quick to joke about things (though his humor is less fatalistic), and Craig Ferguson fills the role nicely. Mr. Gerard "This! Is! Sparta!" Butler is perfect as Stoick, Hiccup's father and the village leader. The rest of the vocal cast are likewise perfectly matched to the characters they play and do a great job.
While we're on the topic of sound, I'll say that even though it's not a musical I still enjoyed the music. There's also some noticeably characterful sound design, such as the Night-Fury's roar and the sounds made by flocks of dragons, which are almost whale-like and can be suitably unnerving when it serves the plot.
While the movie's visual style comes off as a little "safe" in my eyes, there are some impressive moments. The flying scenes are gorgeous and breathtaking, and are enough to make me want to take up gliding. Obviously fire and smoke play a big role, and luckily they are spectacularly well animated; in fact the fire effects are probably the best I've ever seen in an animated movie.
I feel good enough about this movie to give it a 10/10, and I happily recommend it to everyone.
It's worth mentioning by the way that the movie was followed by several shorts. I've only watched one of the three ("Gift of the Night Fury" to be exact), but I really enjoyed it and I'm going to try to watch the rest before I see the sequel.
There was also a TV series made. I've seen some other Dreamworks animated series such as Penguins of Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens, and based on that I expect "Dragon Riders of Berk" to be fun, but perhaps not exactly "canon", so I think I'd rather watch the sequel first.
I just want to say that I felt the end of the movie had genuine integrity; they earned their happy ending, but it didn't come without sacrifice. At the same time, Hiccup losing his leg only serves to bring him closer to Toothless, to strengthen their bond; they're both "damaged", in a way they both complete each other. It's a very powerful image and I think it adds a great deal to the movie.
I'm not really sure how I feel about Gift of the Night Fury, as it's shown that Toothless can be "fixed" so he doesn't need Hiccup anymore. I feel a little bit as if it undermines the original movie by removing that dependence, but on second thought it seems that it's better that they aren't forced to stay together but chose to do so. In fact the more I think about it the more I think having toothless rip the prosthetic fin off his tail so he would be dependent on Hiccup was the mistake. Don't get me wrong, it's very powerful scene; it's how Toothless shows Hiccup in the strongest way he can that he wants to be with him, wants to be connected to him. But when I think about it, it feels unhealthy for him to cripple himself just to stay in a relationship. Oh well, what do I know? I'm probably overthinking things, and besides the story's not over yet.