I want a dragon.
That was about all I was capable of saying as How to Train Your Dragon's end credits rolled. My equally enchanted friend and I watched drawings of different dragon species scroll past, debating which of Toothless-the-dragon’s traits were most charming. Was it the catlike head tilt? The attempted smile, in imitation of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the skinny, hapless young Viking who captures then frees Toothless? The love of raw, dripping fish? The reluctant affection? The heartbreaking loyalty? The silent expressiveness?
If you’re rolling your eyes, scurry along, please; no need for that. How to Train Your Dragon, an animated wonder of a film, does have often-familiar, heartwarming themes about individuality, acceptance, teamwork and prosthetics. It also has wicked awesome dragons (two heads! tiny little wings! unexpected full-body fire!), bumbling Vikings and a delightfully smart main female character, Astrid (America Ferrera), who quickly figures out that Hiccup is hiding something. A scrawny Viking whose attempts to help his village usually wreak more havoc than happiness, Hiccup is an unlikely candidate for Bestest Dragon Fighter Ever. But in dragon training — where Hiccup, Astrid, a pair of scrap-happy twins (Kristin Wiig and T.J. Miller), a D&D nerd (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and a would-be Casanova (Jonah Hill) are instructed by the enthusiastic Gobber (Craig Ferguson) — Hiccup becomes the star. It’s his mysterious talent for charming the beasts that does it.
And where has Hiccup learned these dragon-taming skills? Why, while bonding with Toothless, of course. Dragon has a passel of exaggerated Viking characters and an equal number of entertainingly varied dragons, but at heart, it’s a boy-and-his-horse (or dog, or whatever) story. It’s just that the horse is a mischievous, clever dragon with an injured tail. The injury is Hiccup’s fault; the fix is Hiccup’s invention. Under everything — the endearing bonding montage; the inventive training sequences; the things that bring Hiccup and his father (Gerard Butler) together and push them apart — runs a thread of personal responsibility.
You can, if you like, just watch Dragon and coo over the beautiful parts (dragons and clouds make an incredible combination) and get a little misty at the heartbreaking moments. But if you take it apart to see how it works, the film — directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, whom we also have to thank for the similarly wonderful Lilo and Stitch — just gets even better. Parallel moments pretty up the structure; characters’ seemingly silly obsessions work out to be quite useful; even the hotshot kid needs a rescue when it comes time for the big battle. Hiccup’s mistakes aren’t without consequence, but they’re not overwrought, either. Nothing is out of proportion — well, with one very sizable exception.
How to Train Your Dragon, which snuck back up to the top of the box office chart this week, is one of the best movies of the year thus far — not one of the best children’s movies, or the best animated movies, or whatever other qualifier you might think you ought to use. It’s simply outstanding. And it will make you want a dragon.