Andy Bockelman: ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is fiery family fun

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All pets have their good and bad points, although most don’t have the drawback of being able to rip off you head and eat you whole. But in order to learn to cope with the biggest and most ferocious of our animal pals, you need to learn “How to Train Your Dragon.”

The village of Berk is just like any other Viking settlement: full of hearty warriors, sub-zero weather… and swarms of dragons. Led by chieftain Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the villagers wage a never-ending war against the dreadful beasts that steal their foodstuffs and torch their homes.

Always trying to get the forefront of these fights is Stoick’s young son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who doesn’t share his father’s size, strength, agility, talent — the whole package, really. But what Hiccup lacks in usable skills, he more than makes up for in his zeal for becoming a formidable dragon slayer.

When he manages to down the rarest dragon breed of all, the elusive Night Fury, his desire to cut out the monster’s heart is replaced by pity, and he frees it, soon befriending the flying terror and naming it “Toothless” for its retractable teeth. Having access to his own dragon gives Hiccup an edge in his lessons in fighting the creatures, but he soon wonders if the Vikings have been unjustly attacking dragons for generations.

Aside from the ginger hair, spindly weakling Hiccup looks just like voice artist Baruchel, who gives his character the ideal tone of teenage sarcasm.

Butler provides a booming tenor for father Stoick, who loves his boy but fears for his safety in tackling dragons. However, the actor’s Scottish accent doesn’t make much sense for a role that’s presumably Scandinavian.

What’s a Highlander crossed with a Viking? A Hiking?

Craig Ferguson has the same issue as Hiccup’s mentor Gobber, a blacksmith whose years of dragon fighting has left him with a peg leg and a mutli-functional hook hand. Despite the confusing inflection, he’s still quite funny even if he does bring up his undies too often in conversation.

America Ferrera does well as Astrid, the most capable and dedicated young Viking, whom Hiccup loves from afar. She also has the most normal name of her peers, beating out other less fortunate teens like bickering twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller); bullying braggart Snotlout (Jonah Hill); and corpulent coward Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose expediency in the training arena is limited to spouting out statistics that sound like they came straight out of the “Dungeons & Dragons” handbook.

There are a few tweaks in the adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s children’s novel, most notably the dragons’ lack speech and the size of Toothless, who was originally as puny as his owner. Though faithful readers may object to the changes, the latest from DreamWorks Animation is as sharp as a dragon’s fang in its wit and as high-flying as… well, you can probably guess.

The story more than satisfies, but the glorious animation is what truly draws in the audience, especially when you see things from Hiccup’s vantage point while perched on his new best friend, which more often than not behaves like a big, leathery housecat with wings. Additionally, the father/son dynamic that plays out makes it a must-see for families.

Alternately heartwarming and hilarious, “How to Train Your Dragon” is a joyous venture into the sky and beyond that never stops being entertaining. It’s enough to make you want your own dragon, although we could do without the formality of eating their regurgitated fish heads.

Sometimes, politeness can go too far.

Now playing at the West Theatre.

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