Despite the first two well-made Shrek films, DreamWorks has mostly played second fiddle to CG animation giant Pixar: From Antz to Kung Fu Panda, these illustrated marvels are clearly wondrous to look at, but the narrative arcs and characters never quite resonate with the same emotional complexity and punch as, say, Toy Story or even 2009’s Up. This all changes with How to Train Your Dragon, an enlivening tale about an innovative, scrawny teenage boy named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Raised on the traditional Viking lore of his brawny warrior father Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup is a master at engineering gadgets and various defense mechanisms. His father, though, believes he should be more productive with his time, like training to defeat their sworn enemy: the dragon. While testing his latest catapult in the nearby forest, he manages to capture a rare species of dragon, which he names Toothless. The two soon form an unorthodox friendship that defies the previously held knowledge that all dragons are evil killing machines.
This kid flick is just plain smart, packed full of imagination and surprise; when Hiccup’s suspicious mate Astrid (America Ferrera) discovers his dragon, they go on a death-defying ride into the clouds, whirling and dipping through the skies as Astrid holds on for dear life. How to Train Your Dragon also soars as an allegory for embracing what we fear most, a modern motif that allows the writing-directing pair Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders to deftly sneak in pointed observations of the previous U.S. administration’s use of fear-mongering. Baruchel has proven to be a gifted neurotic player, inhabiting the complicated Hiccup with a great humor and tenderness. The animation here still might not match Pixar’s extraordinary innovation when it comes to digitally animated humans, but How to Train Your Dragon‘s tolerant heart brings back new life to the otherwise stale DreamWorks animation department.