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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3D is DreamWorks' best animated movie since SHREK


I didn't expect much after seeing its trailer, but How to Train Your Dragon is not your typical Dreamworks animated movie. For the first time in a long time, the studio has stepped up its game and produced something memorable. Dragon is a DreamWorks movie on par with Pixar. Though it's based loosely on a book from Cressida Cowell, it is also one of the best video game movies I've seen, blending elements from some of the warmer Legend of Zelda games and the visceral feel of Panzer Dragoon. Children, parents, gamers, adults, and even cynics will find something to enjoy. 

We all know that pirates and ninjas are natural enemies; it's historical fact. The age-old conflict between Vikings and dragons, however, does not get enough attention. On the Viking island of Berk, dragons continually raze the Viking village at night, snatching up sheep and the weak. As Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III tells us early on, this is an old village full of new houses. In retaliation, the Vikings pack up their weapons, get on their longships, and attempt to attack the dragons on their own turf. The Vikings always fail. I'd gather it has something to do with the fact that dragons breathe fire and Viking ships are made of wood, but that's only a theory.

Hiccup is an awkward teenager voiced by Jay Baruchel, who you've probably seen in She's Out of My League or Tropic Thunder. Hiccup is as out of place as his name. He doesn't have the shoulder span to be a real warrior like his father "Stoick the Vast" (Gerard Butler), the village chieftain. He's the kind of kid who doesn't get breaks. If he smacks a tree branch out of his way, it smacks him back. Still, he wants to be a good viking, despite his lack of any traditional Viking skills.

Killing dragons is everything to the citizens of Berk. Killing a little one will get you noticed; killing a medium dragon will get you a girlfriend; killing a shadow dragon, well that will make you a legend. During a dragon attack Hiccup shoots down one of said shadow dragons, but no one believes him. Can you blame them? The next day, he sneaks out into the forest to look for the dragon he shot down. When he finds it, hurt and unable to fly, he pulls out his knife, but isn't 'Viking' enough to make the kill. Instead, he cuts its ropes, freeing the beast.

You can broadly outline where the story heads from there, but broad strokes do it a disservice. How to Train Your Dragon takes time to develop the relationship between Hiccup and the black dragon he names Toothless. Unable to verbally understand one another, they earn each other's trust through body language and necessity. The two need each other more than either will admit.

Last year, I complimented Zombieland (go watch it) for its creative use of rules. Writer/directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (they made Lilo & Stitch) cleverly poke fun at the rules of video games, while sticking to a set of their own. One nerdy Viking-in-training, voiced by McLovin himself Christopher Mintz-Plasse, spouts the stats of each dragon as the teens encounter them. The portly Gronkel dragon, for example, can shoot six fireballs and has a +8 attack. Each dragon has a weakness, but no Vikings have ever gotten close enough find them. They have an encyclopedia of different dragons, but most of the entries simply say "Extremely dangerous. Kill on sight."

A lot of the action and design seem to be inspired by video games as well. Though the film lacks the cell-shaded art style of Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, its Island of Berk and resident dragons have a Nintendo feel to them. If you sailed north long enough in Wind Waker, you might find such an island. The cinematography, aside from obvious comparisons to Avatar, takes cues from rail-shooting games such as Panzer Dragoon, a classic from the Sega Saturn game system. Gamers will recognize the behind-the-shoulder, Point-of-view (POV), and side-scrolling shots. The movie has a Godzilla-like boss battle as well. These camera techniques are chosen for their effectiveness, not their relationship to games, and it shows.

The gap is widening between the quality of a trailer and the movie it advertises. Foolishly, I judged this movie by its trailer. I was wrong. Like many modern releases, trust the word of mouth on this one. There's a reason it's sitting on some of the best critical reviews of the year. DreamWorks Animation has ventured into Pixar's territory. I hope it returns. Often.

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