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Cuddly Dragons 

Enough with the fire-breathing, and lay down your battle-axes. Can’t dragons and Vikings just get along?

click to enlarge art14833.jpg

Now this is what animated fantasy adventures are all about: Fire-breathing dragons soaring through the skies and decimating Viking villages, he-man Vikings setting off in pursuit of the attackers, a son looking to follow in the footsteps of his heroic father, romance blossoming between young male and female warriors.

Well, all of that and a prosthetics motif. The characters in this dazzling and entertaining epic, be they human or reptilian, keep losing limbs — arms, legs, tail wings, you name it — and having them replaced by acceptable substitutes.

But just think of that as a quirk, since it’s all done without a hint of gore. In fact, there’s as much offbeat carrying on in How To Train Your Dragon as there is traditional storytelling aimed at young viewers.

The slapstick is plentiful, the action and excitement level is way up there, most of the characters are cartoon-like both in appearance and in behavior. But this isn’t the same old tale of good-guy people fighting off bad-guy dragons that’s been told through the centuries.

Sure, the people are doing what they always do: protecting themselves and trying to kill the beasts. But there’s a lot more than usual happening over on the dragons’ side of things. First of all, there are many varieties — from the Nadder and Gronckle to the Zippleback and even the elusive Night Fury — the deadly dragon that no person has even seen and survived to tell about.

They regularly attack the Viking village of Berk where, it’s explained in voiceover, people have lived for generations, even though the buildings are always brand-new. This is because the dragons keep burning them down as they fly by to steal sheep.

But before the film gets very far into telling about this specialized pest problem, it goes directly to the relationship between the village leader — big, brave, brawny, bearded Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler) — and his scrawny little teenage son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, sounding just like Christian Slater), who at least can be called brainy.

While the idea of throwing together a wild mix of different types of dragons is a new one, the relationship between Stoick and Hiccup is a classic father-son conflict: single dragon-slaying dad wants his boy to be just like him. But that’s not in the cards for Hiccup, who doesn’t have a competitive bone in his body (though he feels that killing dragons might be a good way to get girls to notice him). He wants to please his dad, but he doesn’t know how to begin. He’s also the chattiest character in the film — even if it’s only himself that’s listening.

Dragon goes down an interesting path when Hiccup takes down and wounds a Night Fury, and then, hidden away from the village, gets to know the not-so-fearsome creature. (I can just hear a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune bubbling up.)

Hiccup gets both useful and useless advice from big Gobber (Craig Ferguson). He’s taunted by and attracted to dragon-killing student Astrid (America Ferrera). But it’s from the Night Fury, whom he dubs “Toothless,” that he gets the most important feedback (something to do with why dragons are so ferocious).

Perhaps the film should have been named How To Be Trained by Your Dragon, though that’s kind of unwieldy. Positive messages nevertheless come shining through, and the 3D visuals are so exhilarating, there will be times when, no matter what your age, you’ll be fixated on swooping through the air astride one of these creatures — whooping it up, having a ball.

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