Once again, an ostracized motherless boy with insecurities–and inquisitive and inventive streaks–defies local custom, outsmarts close-minded bullies, wins over a plucky female peer and emerges a hero for saving the day. “How to Train Your Dragon” is a wonderfully imagined animated PG-rated tale that advocates extra values beyond the genre’s usual uplift for outcasts. Hiccup the Useless (Jay Baruchel) is the first Viking teen in three centuries not to kill a dragon for his rite of passage. Opting for interspecies empathy, he undertakes an ethological study that yields four nonlethal ways of dealing with dragons. “Everything we know about you guys is wrong,” he tells the fire-breather he secretly befriends. A blacksmith’s apprentice, Hiccup makes a prosthetic wing for this combat-disabled dragon. Next come a saddle, reins and stirrups that let him ride his new pal and pet high above his island. Co-writers and co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (whose “Lilo & Stitch” featured an island girl befriending an alien) handle themes of xenophobia found in “Avatar,” “Battle for Terra” and “Planet 51.” “Our parents’ war is about to become ours,” sword-grrl Astrid (America Ferrera) tells Hiccup. “Figure out which side you’re on.” Weighing death tolls, he contrasts the “hundreds of us” with the “thousands of them,” and forges a united front of Vikings and dragons. Tyrannicide ensues. Hooray! No cheers, though, for the Saturday morning promotional screening for kids and critics at Navy Pier IMAX Theatre. For a call-and-response warm-up, Dreamworks folks yelled “Dragon” and told kids to yell back “Dreamworks.” Conditioning that brand reflex was apparently a higher priority than projecting: the two 15,000-watt lamps went dark for several minutes in a key scene. The 12,000-watt sound system delivered screams, thumps and lines, including “Stop the fight!” Maybe it was misheard in the booth as a cue to “Stop the light.” The scene was not rewound for a replay, and the cheerleaders never explained what we missed or why. Fans of Cressida Cowell’s 2003 book “How to Train Your Dragon” might note that the film changes the teen rite of dragon-training to dragon-killing, lets girls into dragon-killling class, drops the dragon-talking and adds much more. All for the better. With the voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller. 98m. Reviewed in “IMAX 3D Experience.” (Bill Stamets)
“How To Train Your Dragon” opens wide Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.