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How To Train Your Dragon

Into the Clouds in 3D

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

In the ongoing battle for box office dollars and, to a lesser extent, critical approval between Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation, Pixar has consistently won both through a combination of quality storytelling and quality animation.

DreamWorks’ success has depended on a combination of pop-culture oriented humor and mostly physical comedy. Animation and storytelling quality have been secondary considerations, with one — and now two — exceptions, 2008’s Kung Fu Panda and now How to Train Your Dragon, a family-oriented fantasy-comedy co-directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch)showing on 2D and 3D screens everywhere.

How to Train Your Dragon centers on Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the small-for-his-size, physically clumsy, socially awkward son of a dragon-killing Viking warrior and village ruler, Stoick (Gerard Butler, in full Scottish accent).

Hiccup and his father live in Berk, a seaside village built on the exposed side of cliff. Showing little aptitude for the Viking warrior’s life, Hiccup has been apprenticed to the village blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson). Like all Viking boys his age, Hiccup dreams of becoming a dragon-killer and, more importantly, living up to his father’s expectations. He also wants to win the affections of a young female warrior, Astrid (America Ferrera).

Relying on brains rather than brawn (which he doesn’t have), Hiccup devises an advanced (for the Vikings) missile system to use against dragons. When the dragons attack, Hiccup manages to hit a Night Fury, a black-skinned dragon no one has seen up close and personal and lived to tell. The Night Fury, however, falls far away from the village. Disbelieved, Hiccup sets out the next day to find the Night Fury and kill it. When he finds the dragon, however, he can’t go through with his plan. Instead, he slowly, fitfully develops a relationship with the injured Night Fury, which Hiccup dubs Toothless.

How to Train Your Dragon initially focuses on the conflict between Vikings and dragons, with dragons getting the better of the Vikings on a regular basis, but soon turns into a story of inter-species friendship and the troubled relationship between Hiccup and his father. The other relationships with Toothless and Astrid are important, but secondary.

A similarly affecting, poignant dynamic centered last year’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but that dynamic — helped by the thankful absence of the pop-culture references that have up until now defined DreamWorks Animation — never feels false or clichéd in How to Train Your Dragon.

There’s dragon training too, of course. While Stoick and the other Viking warriors go on the hunt for a dragon nest, Stoick enrolls Hiccup into dragon training school with Astrid and several other teens his age. He’s not there to train dragons, though. Hiccup’s there to learn how to evade, fight, and defeat dragons. Not surprisingly, slapstick prevails in the dragon training scenes, but ultimately give way to the scenes of Hiccup learning to ride Toothless — scenes that will make moviegoers immediately think of Avatar and, at least for some, The Dragonriders of Pern.

Given How to Train Your Dragon’s audience — children under 10 — and the related merchandising opportunities, the dragons come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Only one or two dragons cross into scary territory, something DreamWorks strove to achieve.

Toothless resembles a cat/bat hybrid with large yellow eyes, a round head, and retractable teeth. Fans of Sanders’ earlier effort, Lilo and Stitch will notice the resemblance between Stitch and Toothless, but that resemblance will do little to dampen the pleasures How to Train Your Dragon has to offer.