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Fire-breathing fantasy
Action-packed 3-D dragon tale soars as family entertainment

"How to Train Your Dragon" is an original. And just to make things completely clear, what I'm writing here is a rave. I love this family movie.

Yes, I know it's based on a series of kid's books by Cressida Cowell, but so much invention had to be done (see the accompanying interview with directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders) that it's almost as if it were made up from scratch.

The result is witty, funny (as always, not quite the same thing), moving, clever, exciting, gorgeous and wildly creative from first to last. It's not exactly like anything I've ever seen before. How so? Let me count the ways.

1. Its delightful star -- playing Hiccup, a young Viking boy who winds up with a pet dragon -- is Jay Baruchel, a young actor with absolutely no starring credentials whatsoever (he can be seen currently in "She's Out of My League"). We're not talking, then, about Tom Hanks or Eddie Murphy or Mike Myers or Jim Carrey here, we're talking about an actor you'd recognize if you saw him but whose face you almost certainly couldn't pick out of a lineup.

Baruchel is an absolutely wonderful cartoon voice, with a kind of sly, shy, slushy drawl that sounds like nothing so much as a very young Christian Slater. He's perfect casting as a young Viking son who isn't exactly what his heroic, dragon-killing father had in mind.

2. Its two hairiest and hardiest Vikings are played -- get this now -- by Scotsmen with outrageously thick Scottish brogues that, if anything, have been thickened for the film. That's Gerard Butler as Hiccup's father, the stout, well-girded Viking leader Stoick the Vast and Craig Ferguson as Stoick's hirsute buddy Gobber the Blacksmith, who makes an apprentice of young Hiccup when his father thinks his sissy son is in need of macho forging by the blacksmith's furnace.

None of the other Vikings, mind you, has a Scottish accent, just Stoick and Gobber. Nor is it ever explained to you, it's just there. The effect is incongruous and, for me, implicitly hilarious all through the film.

3. The dragon-flying sequences are majestic, beautiful and, beyond that, exciting. And that latter is a very rare thing in animated features whose essential unreality removes them somewhat from the kind of breakneck thrills that can be achieved in live-action films. When you see the film in 3-D, you're seeing a major leap into the art of 3-D, not just the cheap sensation of it.

We're used to modern full-length animated features coming at us like giant, magnificent-looking versions of Warner Brothers cartoons in the 1940s and '50s, full of pop culture references and side-of-the-mouth irreverence (think "Shrek"). What we're not used to are animated features with long action sequences that are completely successful just as action sequences.

Make no mistake -- one of the great film stories of our time (and one of the most weirdly underplayed) is the degree to which we're living in a Golden Age of Movie Animation. Whatever else has been happening in America in the last 15 years, it has been wondrous in moviehouses. It's been the era of wholesale import of the films of the great Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki and, on our shores, the "Toy Story" movies, "Iron Giant," "The Incredibles," the "Shrek" movies, "WALL-E," and "Up," among others that have made the whole genre a continual delight and sometimes even a revelation.

"How to Train Your Dragon" is, in its way, a major waystop in that continuing story.

Also in this loonily creative cast are America Ferrera, playing Astrid, Hiccup's tomboyish competitor in dragon-killing school, Jonah Hill as a character named Snotlout and "Saturday Night Live's" Kristen Wiig.

The directors admit in interviews that with one exception -- Craig Ferguson -- the cast was completely assembled when they signed on to make the movie. What that means, then, is that the film's producer is largely responsible for this weird, wonderful cast.

And that's one of the strangest and most interesting back stories of all about "How to Train Your Dragon." The producer of the film -- the one who assembled most of the cast -- is Bonnie Arnold, who was previously the producer of "Toy Story" and, get this now, "The Last Station," the current film about the marital miseries of a dying Leo Tolstoy.

It's high time, then, that Ms. Arnold was better known.

What we're watching, a la "Shark Tale," is the tale of family difficulties and reconciliations when there's a definite generational disconnect in machismo.

Young Hiccup's father Stoick is the tribal leader of Vikings on the isle of Berk and also the tribe's legendary alpha male in the tribe's major avocation, which is killing dragons. Hiccup dutifully goes to dragon-killing school every day (with showoff Astrid) but it's just not really his thing, you know?

While working for the blacksmith, though, he devises a catapult which -- lo and behold -- actually brings down one of the "Night Furies" (that's what the dragons are called) as it rockets by menacingly. Unfortunately, the sleek black dragon isn't dead, just grounded because half of his tail was blown off.

Hiccup feels pity for the creature, which is against everything he's ever been taught -- and everything his Viking tribe believes. So he makes him a mechanical substitute for the part of the tail that's missing.

Before you know it, he's got a dragon pet named Toothless, a flying creature to ride and a whole new perspective on these creatures that are supposed to be the Vikings' natural enemy. It seems all they wanted was to get along.

Besides, all the dragons have troubles of their own with the Big Monster Dragon, which resides on its own island and blithely eats those dragons that don't serve it properly.

It's a complete triumph, and, I must confess, a major moviehouse surprise for me. I don't know that its action sequences and Big Momma Dragon make it completely appropriate for the littlest ones, but for the audiences that are regularly discovering in theaters just how brilliant these animated movies can be, this one's a treat.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

How to Train Your Dragon

4 stars (out of 4)

The voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig and America Ferrera in Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' animated film adaptation of Cressida Cowell's books about a young Viking boy and his pet dragon. Rated PG, opening Friday in area theaters.

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