'How to Train Your Dragon'

Dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
(PG, 98 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Watching How to Train Your Dragon in 3D, I wondered what all the fuss over Avatar was about. The James Cameron epic was visually gorgeous, but superimposing live actors over digital settings — and vice versa — still looks a bit conspicuous even with all the advances that have been made in visual effects technology. Dragon, an animated film, has no such disconnect; it looks even better, more fluid, has more satisfying action sequences. It’s better written too, but that almost goes without saying.

The film, by DreamWorks Animation, isn’t in the same league as the great Disney-Pixar films WALL-E and Ratatouille — its story doesn’t have the same thematic or emotional heft — but as pure escapism it’s heartily satisfying. It’s a traditional underdog story, with environmental and pacifist undertones, about a scrawny junior Viking named Hiccup (voiced by the reliably charming Jay Baruchel), whose entire body could fit in one the biceps of his fellow clansmen. He’s a disappointment to his father, the clan leader Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the laughing stock of his village. In a stroke of luck, he injures the mighty Night Fury, a dragon so swift it has never been seen — its jet-black skin disappears in the night sky, and it emits fireballs as fast and powerful as bolts of lightning. But instead of killing it, Hiccup frees it, and names it Toothless after its retractable teeth.

The film teaches moral lessons about interacting with your environment instead of conquering it and understanding your enemy instead of going to war, but the real heart of the film is in the wonder of visuals like Hiccup and his love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) riding Toothless through the sky, which is especially beautiful in deep, enveloping 3D. The varied details of the dragons are impressive — fat and thin, large and small, short hummingbird wings or massive sails — and the final battle, which finds a common foe for the dragons and Vikings, is a thrilling climax. I remember being surprised by the quality of the fight scenes in DreamWorks’s 2008 hit Kung Fu Panda. The battle scenes here are their equal. Perhaps animation has evolved into a superior medium for such grand action set pieces; you’re not cutting around stunt doubles, wires, ramps, or CGI; the “camera” has complete freedom to follow the action, which is limited only by what you can imagine.