Movie News & Reviews

'How to Train Your Dragon': sweet movie, too few laughs

The Vikings on the island of Berk have this pest problem: dragons. They're dogged by dragons of every shape, size and description — the Thunder Drum variety and the "Scaldrons," which will burn you not with fire but with scalding hot water. Whispering Death is a particular nuisance.

Worst of all is the Night Fury. You can't even see that dragon when it plunges out of the darkness to snatch people and livestock, burn barns and homes, and generally lower property values.

But the burly Vikings of Berk fight fire with fire, and dragons with burrs — Scottish burrs. They all sound like Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson. Or the adult ones do.

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a scrawny kid who longs to do his part because "killing a dragon is everything around here." But he'll have to do it with inventions. He's plainly not tough enough to handle a broadsword or a battle ax to the satisfaction of his dad, stoic chieftain Stoick the Vast (Butler).

Hiccup's lack of a killer instinct and his inability to impress his dad come to a head when he captures a Night Fury. Because once he sees how gentle dragons can be (he can ride them, just like in Avatar), Dad will no longer be upset that Hiccup can't kill them.

Hiccup learns How to Train Your Dragon. Won't the Vikings be pleased? Or at least shocked?

DreamWorks hired the directors of Lilo and Stitch to turn Cressida Cowell's romp of a novel into an animated film and can't be too surprised that they made, in essence, Hiccup and Stitch. It's a cuddly cartoon-character comedy that emphasizes heart over one-liners, message over laughs. Casting funny folks like Jonah Hill and Kristin Wiig in supporting roles to little effect, they emphasize the father-son, boy-community dynamic, with Hiccup as a reluctant dragon slayer among manly hack-first-ask-questions-later Vikings.

But as sweet as it is, there's not enough heart or farcical action (dragon-slaying training) to make up for the lack of ready laughs. No matter how adorably Stitch-like the Night Fury is (rolling on his back like a dog, making those big Disney eyes), I wanted more Viking jokes, more bluster from Butler, more zingers from Ferguson (the late-night host voices a peg-legged blacksmith). "Oh, Thor almighty" doesn't cut it.

Casting Baruchel as the lead ensures that this will be the wimpiest Viking movie ever, which might be the point. This harks back to that 1980s movie and TV series The Reluctant Dragon. It's more coming-of-age dramedy or "everything about your world view is wrong" message movie than it is a comedy. And that seems like a waste of a funny book, some funny actors and some darned witty animation.