March 26 2010 12:00 AM

A beautifully animated, often funny adventure touches on some serious topics

dragoncoverx_topper_medium.jpg“Our parents’ war is about to become ours,” a young girl
tells her friend in a new film. “Figure out what side you’re on.” All
around them they see destruction and chaos, the result of being under siege by
a culture they don’t understand. Some of these enemies set themselves on fire
in order to kill more effectively. Many of the warriors who join in the battle
come home with missing limbs.

The rationale behind the fighting is vague. “They’ve killed
hundreds of us!” a father warns his son. “And we’ve killed thousands of them!”
the son replies.

Given those kinds of details, you might think the movie is
set in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip. It’s not: It takes place on the
island of Berk, in the Meridian of Misery, where “it snows nine months of the
year and hails the other three.” This is not a docudrama. It’s an animated
fantasy from DreamWorks called “How to Train Your Dragon” — and, in its own
way, it’s every bit as politically charged as “Green Zone.”

You won’t find the topical material in Cressida Cowell’s
original book, which (aside from the location and character names) has little
in common with the screenplay by Adam F. Goldberg, Peter Tolan, Dean DeBlois
and Chris Sanders. Cowell’s novel is whimsical and largely light-hearted; the
movie is often quite funny and suspenseful as well, although its message about the need for
communication and open-mindedness is impossible to miss.

The human characters in “Dragon” are Vikings, led by the
hearty, gung-ho dragonslayer known as Stoick the Vast. Scores of dragons regularly
ravage the Vikings’ village, swooping off with their livestock and torching
their homes.

Stoick’s son, a willowy kid named Hiccup (voice provided by
Jay Baruchel), dreams of following in Dad’s footsteps, but his awkwardness has
already made him a local laughingstock. When Hiccup miraculously succeeds in
capturing and partially crippling a “Nightfury,” an elusive, ultra-powerful
dragon with skin as black as India ink and the quizzical, neon-green eyes of a
cat, the boy initially plans to kill the monster. Hiccup’s innate sense of
empathy gets the better of him, however, and he decides to study the Nightfury
instead. Eventually, he even fashions a mechanical tail for the dragon to
replace the one it lost when Hiccup shot it down.

In many ways, “Dragon” adheres to the misfit-makes-good
formula that’s been at the heart of “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas,”
“Mulan,” “Hercules” and dozens of other animated features. This theme has
frequently turned up in previous DreamWorks’ efforts as well. In last year’s
highly successful “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a nondescript bride-to-be named Sue is
transformed by a cosmic calamity into the towering Ginormica and, after some
initial misgivings, she decides she prefers being a “monster” to being a
nobody. The previous year, the company rolled out “Kung Fu Panda,” in which Po
the clumsy panda becomes a champion.

But the exquisitely animated “Dragon” is by far the most overtly political picture of
the bunch. Stoick (who speaks in the Scottish burr of Gerard Butler, perhaps
because Scottish accents have been a staple of DreamWorks’ massively popular
“Shrek” franchise) brings together his people through their common fear of the
dragons. His dream is to locate the secret nest of the flying reptiles and
destroy it — in other words, to fight them “over there” so he doesn’t have to
fight them in his own backyard. Several of the Vikings have hooks for hands or
peg-legs, sad souvenirs of their battlefield experiences.

In the book, the dragons have been largely subjugated by the
Vikings and are treated like workhorses. They speak “dragonese,” a language
some of the Vikings can understand. The movie presents the dragons as wild and
non-verbal, which makes them more mysterious and “foreign.”

Hiccup and his classmates study a manual full of supposedly
valid tips on dragon culture, although when Hiccup begins to establish a bond
with the Nightfury (which he nicknames “Toothless” because of the creature’s
retractable teeth), he realizes the “intelligence” is false. “Everything we
know about you guys is wrong,” Hiccup marvels.

The Iraq War has been box office poison, as evidenced by the
weak grosses of “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Stop-Loss” and “Lions
for Lambs.” Currently, “Green Zone,” which takes a harsh view of the early days
of the conflict, is dying on the vine: After 10 days, the film — which
reportedly cost upwards of $100 million to produce — had brought in less than
$25 million. So you might expect audiences to reject “Dragon” as well.

But if anyone was grumbling about the anti-war sentiments of
the film, you couldn’t hear it at a preview screening last Saturday in Grand
Rapids. The crowd laughed at the comic bits, “ooh”ed and “aah”ed at the movie’s
magnificent sequences in which Hiccup and Tootless take to the skies, and
applauded and cheered as the end credits began to roll. A screening
representative who was collecting comments told me, “Nobody didn’t like it: I
haven’t seen a response like that in a long time.”

So maybe there is room in the multiplex for a movie that
dares to question the War On Terror — as long as the “terrorists” are dragons.

How to Train Your Dragon showtimes at Celebration!Lansing (playing in 3D and IMAX 3D)

Showtimes at NCG Eastwood Cinemas

Showtimes at Lansing Mall Cinema

Showtimes at AMC Meridian Mall