We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Based loosely on the 2003 children's novel by Cressida Cowell, How To Train Your Dragon is the latest 3D animated extravaganza to bolt from the Dreamworks studio.
With Nicolas Winding Refn's apocalypticepic Valhalla Rising (2009) out in cinemas at the end of April, and the altogether more family-friendly How To Train Your Dragon coming right at us in full 3D a month earlier, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the Viking - although Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' film probably has more in common with Avatar (2009) than with anything in Refn's bleak odyssey.
Once again we have a male protagonist caught between his allegiance to his fellow humans and his growing affection for a perceived enemy - and an initiation that involves the union between man and flying, phallic beast. Unlike Cameron's film, however, How To Train Your Dragon is a joyously absurd adventure that wears its themes lightly.
Scrawny accident-prone adolescent Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is desperate to impress his gruff alpha-male father Stoick (Gerard Butler), hulking chieftain of the island village of Berk. During a night raid by marauding dragons, Hiccup manages to bring down an elusive, all-black Night Fury - but when Hiccup discovers the beast still alive but helpless, instead of killing it he offers it friendship and a new tail, and is soon learning that everything that generations of Berk villagers have believed about dragons is wrong.
This newfound knowledge may be turning him from zero to hero in his dragon-training class, and even attracting the eye of his hyper-competitive fellow student Astrid (America Ferrera) - but the day is approaching when he will have to prove himself a man by killing a dragon, which is now the last thing he wants to do.
The opening scenes of How To Train Your Dragon shows most of Hiccup's village being burnt to the ground in an aerial assault from dragons. It really ought to be terrifying, but Hiccup instead chooses this sequence to introduce (in wry voice-over) the ordinary community life, 'pests' and all, from which he, as a teen, feels so alienated. That he and his classmates are voiced by graduates of the Apatow school of slacker comedy (including Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig) only adds to the nervy hilarity of it all, as though living with constant danger from above were no different from trying to be superbad in senior high or coping with getting a girlfriend knocked up.
Here dragons form part of the everyday fabric of Viking life - although they are not quite as integrated as they were in Cressida Cowell's rather different 2003 novel of the same name - and they furnish a perfect background for Hiccup's acts of teen rebellion and rites of passage.
If Hiccup's dragon bears more than a passing resemblance to the mischievous alien from Lilo & Stitch (2002), that is only because both films were written by the same writer-director team. If the Scots accents of the adult Vikings (although curiously not of the younger ones) recall Shrek (2001), that is because this too comes from Dreamworks Animation.
The messages, too, about both being true to yourself and embracing the other, are familiar from any number of other children's film titles - as is the focus on the father-son relationship. Even the Tru 3D is, if we are honest, hardly a necessary addition to the film's imagery. Still, it a fast-paced, funny adventure, offsetting its more grounded scenes with some breathtaking flights of fancy - and, rather cleverly for a free adaptation in an age when fundamentalism and secularism are constantly at war, it teaches children never simply to believe what they read.
This 3D animated Viking feature is just about fast and funny enough to soar above its lack of originality.
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