DreamWorks Animation is in a peculiar place so far as non-Pixar studios go, because when they’re not cranking out proudly disposable dross ('Shrek 4' comes out in May!), they’re steadily sharpening their storytelling skills with projects that turn out equally funny and sweet. I’m happy to report that their latest, 'How to Train Your Dragon,' ranks more on the clever and nimble 'Over the Hedge'/'Kung Fu Panda' end of the spectrum than on the slapdash 'Shark Tale' side of things.Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the scrawniest Viking around, meaning he’s about the least help when it comes to fending off dragons during their periodic attacks on his village. Even when his crossbow-like invention does nab a dragon, no one’s around to see it – only the destruction left in the wake of Hiccup’s attempt. He ventures off to find the captured beast and discovers two things: it can’t fly due to a tail injury likely caused by Hiccup’s device, and he can’t kill it as a good Viking should. Soon, Hiccup befriends the dragon that he dubs Toothless, helping it fly in secret, helping himself show off in public (how else would a pipsqueak make it through dragon training?) and escalating matters into an inevitable third-act conflict of loyalties.
We get your standard-issue daddy issues (Stoick, voiced heartily by Gerard Butler, raises Hiccup alone and almost shamefully), not to mention your requisite love interest (Astrid, voiced by America Ferrara), and there’s nothing wrong with the messages of tolerance and understanding that work their way in, but where directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) really soar is when it comes to conveying the visceral thrill of flight and the bond between boy and pet. The flying sequences are especially impressive in 3-D, adding not only depth but also weight to the experience; at one point when Hiccup slips off, leaving both he and Toothless in freefall, every similar scene in my memory told me that he’d be okay and yet I sat there, held truly rapt by the peril as I might not have been in 2-D or at home.Beyond that, DeBlois, Sanders and their fellow screenwriters ease off on pop culture bits and potty humor (undies are mentioned twice, and a breastplate comes into play) and earn the sly symmetry of their happy ending. It’s that heart that DreamWorks sometimes skimps on, as most other animation arms do, but when it’s there, the morals and clichés slip away and the experience takes off – even without the glasses.