Review: How To Train Your Dragon Delights

If you couldn't tell from his angsty sarcasm, in the animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the Jay Baruchel of the Viking world. He has his voice and his adolescent awkwardness. Gangly and brainy, he's a nerd among colossal-chested, beefy-biceped warrior jocks, constantly tinkering with inventions no one takes seriously. His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler -- a Viking with a Scottish accent?), a burly specimen with a rooster-red beard exploding from his face like fireworks, is the Viking chief, and he's embarrassed by a son that's not cut out for the number one thing Vikings care about most: killing dragons. (Or number two, fitting in.)

At night, while his home on the isle of Berk flickers with eerie bonfires, dragons swoop down to steal livestock. During one such raid Hiccup tests his dragon-catching contraption and downs the mysterious Night Fury. The following day he finds the bat-like black beast bound in the cords of his trap. He raises his blade to finish it, but one look in its fearful green feline eye and he can't. He frees it, deciding once and for all he's no dragon killer. Too bad, then, that his dad signed him up for dragon killing training with Gob (Craig Ferguson) and a class of teen novices that include the skull-belted, sashaying Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig), and Fishlegs (Christopher "McLovin" Mintz-Plasse). Gob's teaching technique consists of tossing them in a Thunderdome-esque gladiator ring and unleashing dragons. Dragons that, like those in the book the film is based on (How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell), come in a variety of species, equipped with an equally diverse range of terrifying talents: chubby hummingbird-winged dragons, rainbow-colored dagger-fanged dragons, two-headed fire-starter dragons (one bellows flammable green gas, the other coughs sparks) ... and that's merely the tip of the dragon population's tail. There's plenty more in the movie and the Viking dragon manual.

When Hiccup discovers he's winged (well, maimed) the Night Fury, he builds it a leather wing. The dragon can't control it so Hiccup attaches it to a harness and foot pedal for steering -- and woo-hoo, Hiccup's flying! Turns out Toothless (Hiccup's name for him) is like a cuddly pet cat, purring and bellying up when scratched in his sweet spot, rolling in dragon-nip grass, and pouncing after sunlight reflected off a shield. The more Hiccup sees how dragons make great pets, the more he's in a quandary -- especially when his dragon-whisperer techniques win him the right to kill a dragon in public.

Like the book, the movie is rich in whimsical detail from character names to Viking-faced towers with fire in their mouths. It's also brimming with aah-eliciting cuteness -- like Toothless' gummy grin. The CGI provided a bewitching mix of breathtaking realism -- the waves of a misty silver-gray sea, rosy-gold clouds and blue sky -- and vibrant cartoonishness, plus a rush of dragon-soaring adrenaline. How to Train Your Dragon also contains kid-appropriate life lessons such as "be yourself," but unlike family films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shrek, it's deficient in witty, adult-aimed double entendres and pop culture one-liners. And the ending's strange twist might leave parents (and filmmakers) with a lot of explaining to do. Cuteness, cheekiness, and CGI are the film's strengths. And, of course, dragons ... it's a Harry Potter-meets-Avatar adventure that should delight most children and adults.

Grade: B+