I've never really held Dreamworks in high regard. True, they really went for it with their first outing Prince of Egypt, but they quickly shifted to an entirely different mode of entertainment: the animated fart joke. After releasing a slew of Shreks and other gratingly "hip" films, I wondered if they were capable of anything else, or anything of substance.
Enter the dragon. I liked this film so much more than I thought I would.
It opens with the voice-over narration of Hiccup, our gawky hero, introducing us to his Viking island village just as dragons are attacking it. Things move forward at a brisk pace, while still managing to let all the characters develop - I was happily surprised that each of Hiccup's classmates had their own defined traits, instead of just being generic bullies. There are some pretty unique twists throughout - the mechanics of dragon flight, the strange weaknesses they have for eels and particular flora, and their "nest island" situation. It's all refreshingly different and intriguing.
My only plot-related gripes concern the father/son drama between Hiccup and Stoick. It's pretty tolerable until we get toward the end, where what could have been justified disappointment turns into heavy-handed disownment.
I'm also a little uncertain about one aspect of the ending, but I don't want to spoil it for you because you should really see this film.
Visually, I loved the stylized Viking world, all rough wood carvings and jagged metal. I feel like you don't see this genre very often, and they really took advantage of its potential for unique design. All the characters had interesting shapes and exaggerated features that were both playful and aesthetically pleasing, save for our hero Hiccup who looked way too "realistic" to belong in this world. He's supposed to be the "quirkiest" character in the whole thing, but his design was the most bland. Explain that one to me.
I also liked how they let the dragons look pretty damn ugly, while still having appealing designs. If you've ever seen the Art of Monsters Inc book, you know that there were so many awesome designs that never made it in the actual film, probably because they weren't adorable enough. For this film, it's as if they encouraged the designs to stay un-cuddly, with hundreds of fangs and bumpy scales all over the place. Not only was it cool that the dragons had diverse appearances, but I also liked that they developed different personality traits for each "species," my personal favorite being the bulbous Gronkle.
This film was firing on all cylinders for me: sweeping action, great visuals, and an engaging story. Apparently Dreamworks has been pretty disappointed with the box office results, which makes me worry they'll think solid films like this don't sell. Prove them wrong; go see it. Let them know you appreciate more than farting ogres.