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Need to cool off a fire-breathing dragon? Tickle its tummy.

3 out of 4 stars


How to Train Your Dragon (3-D)

  • Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
  • Written by Will Davies and Chris Sanders
  • Voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson,
  • America Ferrera and Jonah Hill
  • Classification: PG

Any parent who hid behind 3-D shades for a snooze through the cutesy, underwater-slow Alice in Wonderland should give the technology another shot. Winsome just doesn't play in three dimensions. Sky-high adventure, however, is another story. The new DreamWorks animation How to Train Your Dragon is out. It's a corny, old fashioned boy-dog love story, as adorable as anything Walt Disney ever signed off on.

Except this dog can hunt. On the ground. Way-way up in the air. Swimming through clouds breathing fire. Imagine Old Yeller on a hundred pep pills.

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Truth told, the dog here is actually a dragon that can sit and do tricks. And the kid, a Viking teenager who really isn't much of a Viking. Maybe that's why he's called Hiccup. Every other male in the youngster's village, especially his dad, Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler), and trainer Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson) are improper Norsemen. Hairy brutes with "stubbornness issues," as the film puts it. For 300 years, these guys have lived for killing dragons. Then along comes Hiccup, a pacifist.

The Norse teen (Jay Baruchel) is trying to change his image, messing with a crossbow, when he snares a baby dragon. He draws a dagger, but instead feeds the creature a fish. The big little guy barks, regurgitating half a salmon onto Hiccup's lap. Sharesies. From then on, the two are BFF.

Later, Hiccup is thrown into a dragon pit, but emerges unscathed. The teenager discovers the secret trick to extinguishing fire-breathing reptiles: Dragons like having their tummies rubbed.

Of course, Hiccup's dad won't have any of this. Ruinous war, an epic battle seems certain to be waged on a mysterious, craggy island that might have been imagined by Jules Verne, with Hiccup, spunky girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara) and their pet stranded between mortal enemies. Only Hiccup and his dragon can save the day.

First and foremost, How to Train Your Dragon is a testament to the lunatic power of animation. Montreal's Baruchel is winning as the lovable loser in the current romantic comedy She's Out of My League. But he's much more realistic and fun here in a cartoon, playing a modern, roller-skating skinny teenager who happens to find himself stranded on a Scandinavian fjord in the 11th century. That's the film's best special effect, its best cosmic Hiccup.

And speaking of secret tricks, How to Train Your Dragon, which is loosely based on a kids' series by British author Cressida Cowell, offers future 3-D filmmakers a lesson on how the format works best. The film is living, fire-breathing proof that soaring spectacle works better than even the larkiest satire. Funny doesn't need 3-D. Groucho Marx's jokes jumped off black-and-white screens with the force of knockout punches.

What 3-D can do is loop-de-loops above the clouds. Make it feel like a bus-sized dragon runs harmlessly through you. The latest from DreamWorks is consistently inventive, easily incorporating the technology into the texture of the movie. But here's the best part: The movie's little tricks are just that - texture. The story here is interesting. The characters are fresh and funny. How to Train Your Dragon isn't a good 3-D movie. It's a good movie that happens to be in 3-D.

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