By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
I'm usually not a cooperative guy when exiting a theater and a studio rep asks my opinion of the movie (unless it stinks). I want more time to think about the good ones. I don't want other critics overhearing my comments, and I don't wish to hear theirs.
But when a rep inquired after the animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon, I couldn't resist blurting out my feelings about Toothless, the dragon being trained:
"I want one of those!"
Toothless is a cutie, as much as a gargantuan winged creature that breathes fire bullets can be called cute. He's loyal as any pet should be, playful and pushy in a feline way, yet with the kind of vulnerability that turns an animal shelter visit into a reason to cry.
Remember when Lassie would limp away after pulling Timmy from the well? That's Toothless; hurting yet heroic, unshakably devoted to his friend and savior, a Viking wimp named Hiccup (nasally voiced by Jay Baruchel). A boy and his dragon. What kid with a library card or Kindle hasn't daydreamed about that?
Toothless and Hiccup's relationship is the heart and soul of How to Train Your Dragon but not the movie's only virtue. This is the first semiserious animated flick from DreamWorks, which usually deals with fractured fairy tales (the Shrek series) and genre spoofs (Monsters vs. Aliens, Kung Fu Panda). How to Train Your Dragon approaches Pixar's knack for madcap humor, emotional resonance and unique palettes.
The kingdom of Berk where Hiccup lives appears as fresh to our eyes as WALL-E's world. It's the kind of grimy place, carved into rock and naturally lit by torches and fire pits, where you'd expect Vikings to reside. Yet as Hiccup points out, every building is brand new, constantly replaced after nightly dragon attacks destroy them. One such assault opens the movie; a dynamic set piece establishing a somber subtext to the jokes.
Dragons are the sworn enemy of Hiccup's father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler reprising his 300 bluster). Stoick gathers his forces — all with ballooning biceps and bellies — to search for the dragon's nest, to annihilate the threat. Hiccup is as slim as his name suggests, and left behind by a father disappointed that his son isn't tougher.
Desperate to prove his worth, Hiccup invents a bolo-and-net catapult to shoot down a Night Fury, the Stealth bomber of all dragons. The weapon succeeds but Hiccup can't bring himself to slay the monster. There's something in the beast's eyes, and the way he doesn't kill Hiccup when released. Dragons are instinctive killers, aren't they? Maybe not.
The next day, Hiccup finds the Night Fury trapped in a canyon, his power of flight spoiled by a damaged tail. Hiccup becomes a young da Vinci, sketching and building a prosthetic tail to help a hurting, living thing. This entire segment is irresistible, from the wary first meeting of boy and beast, to their mutual thrill of soaring through 3-D splendor. Try falling out of love with How to Train Your Dragon after that.
Through Toothless, Hiccup learns that all dragons can be friendly, if you know where to scratch, or what foods turn their stomachs. That knowledge makes Hiccup a phenomenon in Berk, although where he learned those tactics must be kept secret, to keep Toothless alive.
There's much more to the adventure, a deft balance of fantasy and teen angst that never loses its contemporary sense of humor. Hiccup and his pals (including America Ferrera and Jonah Hill) talk like mallrats, and Craig Ferguson wraps his brogue around zingers that Vikings probably didn't conceive. How to Train Your Dragon is simply a lark that often soars like Toothless and Hiccup, ending with every intention of a sequel.
I want one of those, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.