DreamWorks Animation tries a new tack, embracing sincerity over satire, with “How to Train Your Dragon,” a thrilling drama interspersed with amusing comedic elements (rather than the other way around) from “Lilo and Stitch” directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Though inspired by Cressida Cowell’s eight-book kidlit series, “Dragon” is more prequel than adaptation, establishing the Viking-inhabited Isle of Berk, where the brawny warrior clan is cursed with an unruly reptile problem. It falls to misfit Hiccup to rethink their relationship with the species — from pests to pets — a notion so appealing, “Dragon” seems destined to become another cornerstone franchise.
Frankly, what kid doesn’t want to tame his own dragon (especially boys, being the demographic toonmakers prize most)? Although the original “Harry Potter” book touched on the concept, the field is wide open for Sanders and DeBlois to explore, and they pursue it as a proper adventure, rather than as the traditional clothesline for punchlines, setting a high-water mark for DreamWorks Animation in the process.
Berk is one of those spots where life is so inhospitable, you wonder why the residents don’t just pick up and move. Much of “Dragon’s” charm is a product of tone, evident from the outset: Rather than emphasizing the constant state of terror and tragedy such a high-alert dynamic must entail, the opening scenes cast these attacks as a form of good-natured sport.
Chief Stoick the Vast (voiced by a growling Gerard Butler, every bit as macho as his “300” character, with a dash of self-deprecation for good measure) and his men welcome the challenge. From an early age, wee Vikings are taught how to vanquish their fire-breathing foes, in much the same way Texas kids learn football. Not unlike the flesh-and-blood actor who voices him, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, currently seen in “She’s Out of My League”) is a gangly and good-natured runt, with the oddball idea that maybe, just maybe, the dragons aren’t as awful as everyone believes.
The most fearsome of the species is the elusive Night Fury, a pitch-black breed about which nothing is known. While the clan’s defensive strategy is to fight first and ask questions later, Hiccup is curious enough about these creatures that he builds a contraption to capture (rather than kill) a dragon, setting his sights on the Night Fury, whom he succeeds in shooting down and ever-so-gradually befriending in secret.
Hiccup is son of the chief, which brings with it another set of expectations (as well as potential for poignancy) as Stoick comes to understand his pacifist son’s special gifts. The conflicts at play here are all pretty standard stuff, permitting Sanders and DeBlois a certain shorthand in the storytelling and room to focus their energy on crafting memorable scenes between Hiccup and the Night Fury, whom he dubs “Toothless,” intercut with dragon-training classes among his peers (voiced by such comic personalities as Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig).
A standout among the cast, America Ferrera voices the role of tomboy Astrid, conveying an assertive, empowered confidence not normally associated with Viking culture, but more than welcome in a 21st-century family film. Strangely, the young characters all speak in accents you’d expect to hear in an American mall, whereas the adults (played by guys like Craig Ferguson) managed to develop thick Scottish burrs somewhere along the way.
An equivalent disconnect exists among the dragons: Five of the varieties represent the sharp angles and eccentric sensibility of Nico Marlet, the character designer behind “Kung Fu Panda,” while the Night Fury hails directly from Sanders’ imagination. Toothless shares a good chunk of DNA with Stitch, blending that character’s mischievous look with an intuitive combination of lizard- and cat-like qualities.
Weaning itself entirely from the gimmicks of stereoscopic 3D, “Dragon” makes dazzling use of the format, particularly during high-flying dragon rides — the exhilaration of which is echoed in John Powell’s fleet score. Equally noteworthy is the look of the film, which features lighting unlike that of any other CG-animated toon, courtesy of visual consultant Roger Deakins, whose aesthetic favors heavy shadows and live-action-style effects created by virtual bonfire- and torchlight.