How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of a young Viking named Hiccup, who is the son of the town's leader. His town has a major dragon problem, and its everyone's duty to fend off the dragons; everyone's, that is, excepted awkward, clumsy Hiccup. However, during one attack, Hiccup manages to knock down a dangerous, mysterious dragon known as a Night Fury, but no one believes his story. He goes out on his own to find the dragon, only to discover that everything his people know about them is wrong. On top of that, Hiccup has to complete a rite of passage in training to fight dragons, something that he finds more and more difficult the more he bonds with the Night Fury, which he has named Toothless.
The film does bear similarities to other Dreamworks features. The character design is based on the Dreamworks model, but is very much more refined than previous pictures; it never fails to amaze me how detailed and "realistic" animators can make things seem nowadays. Another similarity, surface-wise, is the casting of a who's-who of voice actors: aside from Baruchel and Butler, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, David Tennant, Kristen Wiig, and TJ Miller all provide voices (though it should be noted that this is a lower-wattage group than, say, anything else Dreamworks has done lately). Then there's the age-old theme of being an outsider looking for acceptance, something that has been the predominant motif of pretty much all of Dreamworks' output over the last decade.
But there's something truly special about this film: it distinguishes itself not only from the Dreamworks ouevre, but also from last year's animated films in general, which given the year the medium had that's a terrific achievement. There's a genuinely touching story here, one that I would say even rivals that of Toy Story 3's, and the film takes the time to build on that story and provide character moments that enrich the story's participants - something that's so rare in animated films nowadays that I was actually taken aback by it. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (whose only previous credits are for Lilo & Stitch) deliver some serious goods here, particularly in the way they use the camera to create a sense of epic scope, visually and emotionally. All of the action sequences are surprisingly well-rendered and immediate, making for some incredibly tense moments. And the use of light and shadow, something that's not always done in animation, is truly astonishing; at points its easy to forget that this is actually an animated film. With their exquisite visual vocabulary and grammar, they manage to finally crack that "Pixar formula" for Dreamworks: they've made an animated film that's ostensibly for kids, but can genuinely be enjoyed by anyone of any age, and without a single pop-culture reference or self-serving, cynical smirk.
Its no wonder How to Train Your Dragon has been bandied about as a possible spoiler to Toy Story 3's Oscar-winning chances: its a magnificent film that stands as one of the best of last year, and I hate that I didn't get to see it until now. Its definitely worth seeing, and provides a terrific example for why animated films don't deserve to looked down on as "just for kids."