The film is split into two tonally distinct sections: an intimate and charming boy-and-his-dragon friendship fable, and an exceptionally dull gladiatorial adventure film. It seems like nearly half of the running time is swallowed by a series of dragon defense training sequences with our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), wowing a gaggle of cartoon stereotypes with his ability to tame the ferocious beasts without violence. There's seriously so many of these scenes that I keep thinking the name of the movie is "How to Tame Your Dragon."
The arena stuff doesn't do much to carry the plot; it just sort of peripherally shows the practical application of learning the softer side of dragons. And because the plot isn't really being advanced (the young Vikings are being trained while most of their village is out searching for a dragon hive), gags substitute for story, and wit is not the film's strong suit. Honestly, most of the characters feel shamelessly yanked from an animated who's who of the last decade. You've got the bickering siblings from "The Incredibles," a protagonist not unlike Linguine of "Ratatouille" fame, and a couple of Shreks thrown in for good measure (or maybe that's just the Scottish accent). The supporting cast ultimately dilutes the simple maturity of film's central friendship, and sucks "Dragon" dangerously near the "Shark Tale" sinkhole.
It's sort of like "Up" and the talking dogs. When you have something powerful, stick with it. Not every animated film has to be a 3D action/effects spectacle. Maybe this is a little greedy, but I'm not interested in going timeshare on "How to Train Your Dragon." Give me "Old Yeller" or give me "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."
Fortunately, it's more the former than the latter. As kids films go, you could do a lot worse, but the divide that makes Pixar Pixar and Dreamworks Dreamworks is still firmly inset in "Dragon's" design philosophy. Pixar transcends the idea of making children's films, where Dreamworks embraces it, and while that's terrific for the target demographic, I don't think mom and dad are going to have as good a time as they did watching "Finding Nemo" or "Monster's Inc."
But Dreamworks is getting better at keeping the whole family entertained, and "How to Train Your Dragon" is among the very highest echelon of the studio's animated work, which probably partly accounts for its overwhelming praise via Rotten Tomatoes. Objectively however, it doesn't quite know who it's trying to please, and settles for a 'some of the people, some of the time' scenario that left me intermittently yawning. At its heart, there's a timeless companionship—It just sometimes gets lost in favor of disposable entertainment.
And that may be a backhanded compliment, but it's a complement nonetheless. "How to Train Your Dragon" is entertaining and sometimes touching, but doesn't quite overcome its kiddie stigmata, and the ADD child in me has already moved on.