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‘Dragon’ Lacks Fiery Character

By BILL GOODYKOONTZ

Gannett Chief Film Critic

The best kids' films depend upon relationships.

Think of the relationship between Buzz Lightyear and Woody in the "Toy Story" movies, Carl and Russell in "Up," Marlin and Dory in "Finding Nemo." They are pretty much equal partners in terms of our affections and attention.

That's not quite the case in "How to Train Your Dragon," a mostly winning animated film about Hiccup, a boy Viking (voice of Jay Baruchel), who isn't cut out for the traditional village occupation: killing dragons, which terrorize the residents on a regular basis.

Instead, he befriends one of the beasts, a variety called a Night Fury, which he captures and injures almost by accident (they're so fast no one has ever actually seen one), then slowly begins to care for as he keeps him in hiding. They develop a relationship, the central one in the film, which is well-developed and more realistic than this kind of thing sometimes is.

Hiccup is a nice addition to the legion of cool kid characters.

But that dragon. ... Hiccup names him Toothless. He doesn't speak, sing, any of that. Which may sound like a stupid complaint, because a singing, talking dragon wouldn't be realistic. Then again, HE IS A DRAGON, so it's not like realism is a priority.

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, working from a script based on Cressida Cowell's books, should be credited for the way they develop the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless. It's not forced; when he first finds the dragon, Hiccup intends to kill it. But he can't make himself do it, which automatically makes him different from the rest of the villagers -- especially his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the leader of the village and a fearless dragon slayer.

Stoick doesn't hold out much hope for the weak, meek Hiccup following in his footsteps, which is probably pretty good thinking on his part. Still, when he sails off to search for the dragon nest, Stoick entrusts Hiccup to Gobber (Craig Ferguson) for dragon-slaying training, where he will learn alongside more-eager pupils, such as Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and, especially, Astrid (America Ferrera), a girl as tough as any Viking, striking a blow for inclusion and equality as surely as she strikes blows on the heads of her classmates.

Hiccup doesn't have much of a taste for fighting the dragons, even in training. But, to the great shock of his teacher, fellow pupils and village residents, he is able to control them, as sort of a dragon whisperer.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, he's been picking up pointers from Toothless, and learning more about dragons, as well. Hiccup helps heal Toothless, gains his trust, puts a saddle on him and flies him through the skies. On one flight, he discovers the truth behind why the dragons attack the village and steal its food and livestock.

Spreading that greater understanding to the village -- and imparting it to his stubborn father -- is, of course, Hiccup's challenge, and it won't happen without a fight.

There's a strong message of acceptance here, of not rejecting someone just because they're different. Baruchel is outstanding, giving Hiccup just the right amount of confidence buried several layers beneath the shame he feels in not continuing the family business. Butler's a headbanger from way back, so he's convincing. And Ferrera gets the grrl-power vibe just right.

But despite his ability to fly, it's that darn Toothless who keeps "How to Train Your Dragon" from soaring higher. He works OK as a dragon, I suppose, but as a friend in a kids movie, he could use more bite.

Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.

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