Almost everything you knew about dragons is wrong. They don't just breathe fire. They can belch lightning and toxic gas, too. They come in every color and shape imaginable, not just lizard green. They curl up into a ball and fall asleep when you tickle their chins, like kittens. And contrary to every fable you've ever read, they don't necessarily want to kill you. They're just hungry. A properly fed dragon makes a great house pet.
With How to Train Your Dragon, directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois achieve the same trick they pulled off in their first feature, Disney's Lilo & Stitch: They revel in the deep, elastic pleasure of whimsical animation. The story, drawn from the children's book series by Cressida Cowell, is pure boilerplate: In the Viking era, a scrawny teenager named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) tries to live up to the expectations of his brawny warrior father (Gerard Butler),but ends up befriending one of the creatures he's expected to slay.
The plot is just a framework, though, onto which the filmmakers can hang their wondrous art. Get past the reams of plodding exposition in the first 10 minutes, and you'll be rewarded by a nutty, exhilarating ride into a high-tech Looney Tunes. The bond that grows between Hiccup and a fearsome dragon known as Night Fury is derivative of everything from Old Yeller to E.T., but it still works as well as it ever did. (The directors pay critical attention to the beast's eyes; its pupils dilate into fat circles when it is happy and narrow into cat-like ovals when it gets mad.)
When Hiccup takes flight atop his unlikely new friend, the swooping camera conveys the stomach-tickling vertigo of a log flume ride. And the movie keeps topping itself as it goes along: When the winged creature takes Hiccup on a ride to the dark, fiery mountain where all the dragons live, the film achieves the same visual wonder Avatar managed, without all the portentous allegories and hand-wringing. And when the enormous queen of the monsters' den enters the action, the movie turns into the best Godzilla yet.
How to Train Your Dragon doesn't have the depth and resonance of a classic, but the picture's modesty is refreshing,and its artistry is awe-inspiring (the lighting and cinematography are particularly impressive). I saw the film in plain old 2D, so I can only imagine what the 3D version is like. But in either incarnation, the movie is a transporting thrill. Here be dragons - lots and lots of dragons - and that, for once, is a good thing.
How to Train Your Dragon (*** out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday, March 26.