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Movie Review

How to Train Your Dragon

Dragon whisperer: Boy makes his bones among 3-D monsters

“How to Train Your Dragon’’ centers on the young Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who impresses Astrid (America Ferrara) with his ability to train the dragon Toothless. “How to Train Your Dragon’’ centers on the young Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who impresses Astrid (America Ferrara) with his ability to train the dragon Toothless. (Paramount Pictures)
By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / March 26, 2010

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The Viking era and the funtastic world of cartoons don’t have to be mutually exclusive sources of creative inspiration — there’s Hagar the Horrible, of course. But there’s also, probably more definitively, Robert Zemeckis’s “Beowulf,’’ with its grim landscapes, startling gore, and dead-eyed characters. So there’s a certain element of won’t-let-that-stop-us boldness to “How to Train Your Dragon,’’ which finds DreamWorks Animation looking to Viking territory for its next Shrek-sturdy comedy tentpole. By Odin, they make it work.

Adapted from the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, the movie casts Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League’’) in familiar nasally mode as Hiccup, an adolescent would-be warrior whose village is prone to attacks from all manner of dragons. Trouble is, scrawny Hiccup is useless in a fight, much to the chagrin of his burly chieftain dad, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and Hiccup’s dentally challenged blacksmith mentor, Gobber (Craig Ferguson). The exposition is a little too brisk to get into Norsemen with thick Scottish accents, but then, the whole ’toon-with-a-burr model has served DreamWorks pretty well so far.

When Hiccup actually manages to shoot down one of the monsters, nobody believes him. And he’s semi-incredulous himself when he discovers that the maimed dragon is a legendarily elusive breed known as a Night Fury — and that if shown a little kindness, the feline-skittish creature quits its hissing and moves to bonding. (Think “Avatar’s’’ bronco busting, but gentler and more emotionally invested.) Before long, Hiccup is taking to the air on Toothless, and parlaying his secret dragon-whispering skills into unlikely nonviolent success at Gobber’s junior slayer academy. Hiccup even manages to impress his steely dream girl, Astrid (America Ferrera, nominally courting the Disney Princess demographic). Eventually, though, Stoick demands that there be some actual slaying, both in the academy’s Thunderdome and off at the dragons’ long-concealed nest. Cue the angst, and Butler’s “300’’ battle cries.

As directed by “Lilo & Stitch’’ vets Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, “Dragon’’ does frenetic action well, even if some bits undermine their sweet pacifist message. Parents of preschoolers be warned: The Hiccup-and-Goliath finale is surprisingly intense. Everyone else, hang on for an elective final twist that’s intriguingly unafraid to vacuum a bit of the pixie dust off a fairy-tale ending. Still, the standout 3-D moments are the lyrical ones, when Hiccup guides Toothless up into the clouds, or skimming down over the sea. It’s the kind of thing that IMAX has been doing for years, obviously, but the effect is particularly dazzling here.

You’ll also appreciate the movie’s deftness at engaging in what all DreamWorks features must — hipster patter and toy-minded design — without being obnoxious about it. There are plenty of dragon specs laid out for the Bakugan set, no question; some spontaneously combust, some flit like hummingbirds, and a two-headed species spews gas with one maw, then ignites it with the other. See if you don’t get legitimately caught up in charting it all, be the merchandising obvious or not.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON Directed by: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

Written by: Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, DeBlois, Sanders, Cressida Cowell (based on Cowell’s book)

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, and Jonah Hill

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 98 minutes

Rated: PG (sequences of intense action, some scary images, and brief mild language)

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