How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ★★★½

Review Date: January 11th, 2011

Oh, how Pixar has spoiled us. After a decade and a half of the studio releasing one classic after another, from 1995's Toy Story to last year's Up!, we've grown accustomed to animated films both visually stunning and emotionally captivating. And when another studio's animated offering, however solidly-crafted, falls short of these impossibly high expectations, it's inevitably damned with the faint praise of "It's not Pixar, but..." Such is the plight of Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon, a movie only superior to, say, 65% of live-action films as opposed to 99% of them.

Based on the children's novel by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon is set on the mythical island of Berk, home to a tribe of macho, stubborn Vikings who refuse to relocate despite near-constant attacks from fire-breathing dragons. The most macho and stubborn of the tribe is the their chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), a brave and burly ginger beast whose teenage son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), inherited virtually none of his father's traits. Scrawny, self-effacing and intellectually curious — making him pretty much the anti-Viking — he's a constant source of shame to his mighty father.

Eager to win his dad's approval — and by extension the respect of his tribe — he enrolls in Dragon Training, where young Vikings learn to slay the winged demons that prey upon Berk. But Hiccup is ultimately a pacifist at heart, and when he manages to wound a highly-prized Night Fury dragon, he can't bring himself to finish off the injured creature, choosing instead to nurse it back to health. He names the creature Toothless, develops a tight bond with it, and evolves into a sort of Jane Goodall of dragons, learning how to subdue and eventually domesticate them.

As 3D-animated experiences go, How to Train Your Dragon ranks among the best of them, surpassing recent entries like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and even Pixar's last Oscar-winning release in its exploitation of the burgeoning format. An airborne sequence in which Hiccup pilots Toothless on their first test run together is truly exhilarating, as is the film's chaotic opening battle sequence between the Vikings and their dragon nemeses. But its story lacks the same energy, its humor the same punch, and its pace too often drags — a fatal flaw for a movie tasked with occupying the minds of fidgety pre-teens for 98 minutes.

Oh, and don't bother trying to figure out why all the child Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon have American accents, while the adults have Scottish ones. Remember, this is the same studio that gave us Shrek, featuring another inexplicable Scottish brogue. The artists at Dreamworks just have a weird Scot fetish. rated this film 3 1/2 stars.