*How to Train Your Dragon (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Over the ocean near a distant land, a thousand years ago, someone rides on the back of a dragon — and it's you. You dive and swoop, freefall and skitter over the surface of the water. On an IMAX 3-D screen, How to Train Your Dragon becomes one of those immersive experiences that makes the ridiculously steep "value-added" ticket prices seem worthwhile.
Yes, you become the character riding that dragon — which is a good thing, because you're probably more interesting than the character actually riding that dragon.
If we've learned anything from the recent phenomenal success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, it's that audiences haven't lost their enthusiasm for paying more to spend two hours in a fantastical world. It's now simply assumed that family-oriented, computer-animated films will be released in 3-D; and How to Train Your Dragon provides breathtaking chunks of visual filmmaking, even as it turns out yet another story and protagonist recycled from a dozen predecessors.
The basis for that story is Cressida Cowell's book about a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who lives in a seaside town regularly raided by dragons. The townsfolk, led by Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler), are fierce fighters dedicated to eradicating every last dragon, and Hiccup wants to become one of them — despite his apparent incompetence at such manly tasks.
But when one of Hiccup's inventions unexpectedly downs a feared and legendary dragon called Night Fury, the boy finds he doesn't have the heart to slay him. Instead, he befriends the injured dragon he comes to call Toothless, and constructs a prosthesis to help the creature take to the air, riding him on dizzying flights.
If you tilt your head just a bit, you can spot the subversive sociopolitics buried in How to Train Your Dragon. As Hiccup spends more and more time with Toothless, he begins to use his up-close-and-personal knowledge of dragons to subdue them without having to use force. He also learns that the motivations for the dragons' raids are more complex than pure destructive malevolence. Could it be that one can solve the problem of an enemy better through study and engagement than through demonization?
That would have been a daring angle, had directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) stuck with it. But How to Train Your Dragon instead opts for the most overused premise in kid-flick-dom. Once again we get the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer plot about a misfit whose unique gifts are destined to be valued by those who once mocked him.
It's a concept that certainly can still work, but here many of the gags and characters seem a bit flat, including the blandly likeable Hiccup.
Fortunately, the visual storytelling provides much more. There are great moments involving the tentative initial connections between Hiccup and Toothless that play like something out of The Black Stallion, and a fun montage showing Hiccup employing his newfound knowledge of dragon weaknesses. And when the action really kicks in — from the earliest flying sequences to the climactic raid on the dragons' volcanic mountain stronghold — a viewer wearing 3-D glasses in front of an IMAX screen is bound to be dazzled.
Still, I dream that someday a movie will combine the best of 3-D with an exceptional tale. Then we'll see something invested with as much creative energy as the scripts for those Winter Olympics tie-in commercials.
We'll see something where you not only feel like you're flying in IMAX 3-D, but you'll remember the experience and the story afterward.