Five Reasons Why 'How to Train Your Dragon' Flies High

The narrative and technical quality of kids' animated movies over the past decade has been so high that I now take that standard for granted. Even "churn-em-out" franchises like Ice Age and Madagascar are stronger than most live-action family films. So when my kids and I went to see How to Train Your Dragon, I only expected a typically-decent addition to the field.

But, boy, I was surprised. On almost every cinematic level, Dragon flies high over its competition, and is -- in my mind -- the best animated film since Finding Nemo set the bar in 2003. Even my 10-year-old said it was "possibly the best thing I've ever seen in my life" (though, in fairness, he says the same thing about every basket of French fries he encounters). Here are five reasons why Dragon breathes new fire into the kids' animation genre.

1) 3D That Delivers
Dragon and James Cameron's Avatar have two things in common: Brave heroes learning to ride intimidating dragon-like creatures, and 3D effects that are glorious and purposeful, not just superfluous and decorative, as in many 3D films. I can't imagine enjoying Dragon half as much without wearing those Risky Business shades, and most reviews call out the amazing 3D effects. On the other hand, Bolt and Monsters vs. Aliens would be just as satisfying in 2D.

2) Oh, the Humanity!
Dragon’s Vikings and Viking-wannabes were a perfect hybrid of realistic humanity and classic cartoon exaggerations (a mix so creepily ruined in The Polar Express). It's also refreshing to experience an animated world in which animals (or for that matter, cars or toys) can't talk. Toothless (the "Night Fury" dragon trained by Hiccup (Jay Baruchel)) was much more interesting and endearing without a voice than he ever would have been as a chatterbox. I personally think anthropomorphism in general is soooooo 2009. Coraline and Up almost got away with not having animals talk. Almost.

3) Story Time
For Dragon's filmmakers, deep characterizations clearly came first, a rich story second, and natural comedy third. That's probably the hardest way to make a movie, but it pays off when it’s done well, like it is in both Dragon and Nemo. Another illustrated kids' book-turned-movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, had a little too much story and not enough character on its plate; Monsters vs. Aliens barely had time for a coherent story amidst all of the slapstick jokes and one-liners. 

4) The Son Also Rises
Hiccup, the small young Viking who sees his clan's natural enemy in a new light, has a fairly predictable story arc, but whereas most animated humans play a solemn straight man to some wisecracking jester (an Aladdin to someone else's Genie), Hiccup is a sarcastic, self-effacing goofball with a strong, realistic sense of humor to match his hidden drive. Kudos to Dragon's writers and character actor Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) for Hiccup's unique and clever characterization. You can actually see why the girl (America Ferrera) likes him.

5) The Eyes Have It
Some animated films sacrifice poignant characterization for adventure -- there were no teary moments in The Incredibles or Cars -- whereas others sacrifice adventure for meaningful characters (My kids were bored by Wall-E). Still others inexplicably sacrifice both (Happy Feet). But like in Up and Nemo, Dragon’s most eye-wetting moments are matched by terrific, eye-popping action and suspense.

PLUS:
- Watch an Exclusive Clip from How to Train Your Dragon
- VIDEO: What's America Ferrera Planning for Her 26th Birthday?

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