Fun for kids, but 'Dragon' has message, too

Posted: March 26, 2010

There's a bit of Pandora in the piney mountainscapes of DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon, and more than a bit of the Na'avi, too, in the swooping aerial sequences involving this kid-friendly picture's hero and heroine: There they go, straddling a giant winged beast and spiraling through the misty skies.

Add a pair of 3-D glasses - How to Train Your Dragon is being presented in the pricier stereoscopic format in almost half the theaters where it's booked - and at times it seems that this lively, colorful animated fantasy comes by way of James Cameron. Cameron lite.

But instead of Avatar's strong eco message, How to Train Your Dragon's is that communication and empathy work better than axes and swords, and that, yes, fire-breathing mythical beasts have feelings, too. (OK, maybe that's also Avatar's message.)

It's also about a scrawny son gaining the approval of his brawny Viking dad. That would be Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel), a kid determined to prove his mettle by slaying a Night Fury - a breed of reptile so daunting it makes other dragons seem like bunny rabbits.

Then Hiccup actually captures one of the things. And, of course, not only can he not take a knife to the creature, but he also ends up becoming its friend. Hiccup dubs the dragon Toothless. It looks like a cross between a big bat and a beached whale, with the melancholy whimper of a dog and the whinnying spirit of a horse. And if Toothless is remindful of the impish Stitch from Lilo and Stitch, that's no coincidence: How to Train Your Dragon's codirectors, Dean DeBlois and Christopher Sanders, served in the same capacity on the 2002 Disney feature cartoon.

Inspired by Cressida Cowell's kid-lit series, How to Train Your Dragon has two or three booming and intense action sequences that may leave the littlest audience members more quaking than charmed. But the notion of having a pet dragon - just like a pet whale, or a pet lion - is a scenario that should appeal to children of all ages.

The bearded, burly Vikings of the Nordic isle of Berk are headed by Hiccup's father, Stoick the Vast (a grumbling Gerard Butler). Ugly Betty's America Ferrera gives voice to the feisty Astrid, a Teutonic teen who starts off thinking Hiccup is a wimp and ends up his dragon-loving gal pal.

With less of the scattershot pop-cult japery of the Shreks and more heart, How to Train Your Dragon is unlikely to find the really big demographic crossover crowds. Then again, there are those 3-D glasses - everybody's wearing 'em.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

How to Train Your Dragon *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Christopher Sanders. With the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, and America Ferrera.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Animation.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.

Parents' guide: PG (intense action sequences, scary mythical creatures)

Playing at: area theaters in 2-D and 3-D formats

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