Feckless teenager Hiccup (Baruchel) is an accident-prone misfit living in an island village of Vikings under regular attack from apparently rapacious, fire-breathing dragons. But when Hiccup shoots one down and then tracks it down and befriends it, he comes to question his priorities.
We don't see enough dragons on film, and when we do, they spend most of their time hunkered in shadowy caves where the CGI is less costly, or swerving to avoid a flurry of cod-fantasy dialogue. Thank goodness, then, for this 3-D animated dragon’s tale, which, after an ungainly run-up, takes off and soars.
A frenetic opening segment sees dragons attacking a Viking fishing village, all shot in colours of earth and fire and night, but we soon settle into familiar territory: the geeky, klutzy hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a disappointment to his huge, manly father Stoick (Gerard Butler). Hiccup resolves to find new ways to fight dragons, and after a machine of his own invention shoots down one of the almost mystical Night Furies, sets off to find his prize. Instead, he finds a wounded beast which he names Toothless, and the two form a symbiotic relationship that becomes the heart and soul of the film.
The bond that slowly develops is beautifully established. Toothless combines a feline capriciousness with a doggy delight in life, but flickers with intelligence more akin to a great ape. Hiccup, meanwhile, slowly sidesteps his clichéd beginnings to find his place as a Viking and a dragon rider.
Inevitably, there’s a bigger, scarier cause behind the dragons’ raids that man and reptile must work together to combat in a staggeringly large-scale finale, and real stakes in the ensuing fireworks. There are moments of brilliance there, both in the aerial dogfighting and the ties that bind the pair. While it might take a sequel to develop those to their full potential, this is probably the best DreamWorks yet.
The start wobbles, but once boy and dragon connect, this becomes a thrilling flight.