'How to Train Your Dragon' (Paramount / Dreamworks)

Many movies aimed at children are abject failures. They pander to kids, pretending they're smarter than their parents, and insult adults, reducing them to simpering caricatures. Soaring and swooping, both visually and emotionally, How to Train Your Dragon avoids those traps, instead playing out as a grand, invigorating, all-ages adventure.

Adapted from a book by Carolyn Cressida Cowell *, the film takes significant liberties with its source material, but starts at the same place. Vikings landed on the North Atlantic island of Berk and made it their own. The older generation speaks with a thick Scottish brogue -- historically accurate, if delightfully disconcerting -- and preaches the old Viking ways. Young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel at his most diffident) wants nothing more than to be a good Viking, just like his father Stoick (Gerard Butler, born to play a character with that name). Hiccup's resolve is tested by his adolescent clumsiness and a sneaking suspicion that he may never be half the man that he imagines his father to be.

Dragons besiege the island. Thus an annual coming-of-age ceremony involves a young lad or lady demonstrating their qualifications as a Viking by killing a fierce flying creature in battle. Hiccup is all too eager to begin training as a dragon-killer, hoping to prove his manliness, but his father is reluctant to put his soft, gentle son on the battle lines when he seems too gentle and awkward to survive.

Things change when Hiccup encounters a wounded dragon in the woods. Hiccup has been raised to believe that dragons are the mortal enemies of the Vikings, and are to be terminated with extreme prejudice whenever the opportunity presents itself. Yet when faced with an ideal situation to assert his Viking-hood and slay a deadly beast that is temporarily defenseless, he wavers.

It's a life-changing moment, as Hiccup realizes it's not within his nature to kill another being. That quickly dawning, daunting self-awareness will affect forever his relationship with everyone he knows.

He tries to tell his father, but the old man has already decided that training to become a dragon-killer may toughen up his boy. It might kill him, too, but that's a chance that Stoick is willing to take with his only offspring, in hopes that Hiccup will prove worthy of his mighty lineage.

Under the firm and loving tutelage of Gobber (Craig Ferguson, speaking with the densest, most lyrical Scottish accent heard in years), Hiccup and his peers (voiced by America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, among others) must learn how to fight the rich variety of dragons that live on the island. Meanwhile, Hiccup sneaks off to help the wounded dragon, and learns more than he ever thought possible about dragons, and about life, and about love.

The wounded dragon, named Toothless by Hiccup, doesn't speak, and acts like any animal in the wild, which is one of the things that make How to Train Your Dragon such an endearing and successful movie. Toothless is his own beast, just as Hiccup is his own young man. Both follow their instincts, and both prove to put the interests of others above their own.

Hiccup's desire to please his father is driven by love and respect. We don't know what happened to his mother, or when she passed off the scene, but if she were still around it's easy to think that Hiccup would be considered a momma's boy in the testosterone-driven environment inhabited by the Vikings. The young girls in Hiccup's training group are more traditionally masculine than he is.

The conflict between Hiccup and Stoick is thus easy to understand in modern terms. And it's foolish, and would be foolhardy, for Hiccup to think of rebelling against his father or against society, because where else would he go? He lives on an island in the middle of an ocean. He has to make peace because he has no choice. That makes his actions all the more courageous and praiseworthy.

Solidly rooted on such a strong, character-based foundation, How to Train Your Dragon is free to take flight for multiple stirring action scenes. They are every bit as rousing as they need to be. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders previously helmed Lilo & Stitch, and some of that same manic energy is carried over here, especially in the scenes with Hiccup's joking, jousting peer group.

The thin, reedy voice of Baruchel (recently seen as the star of She's Out of My League) serves his character well. Ferguson's broad, friendly delivery wrings as much humor as possible from his peg-legged, hook-handed, jovial Falstaff. Butler doesn't add too much to Stoick, but neither does he distract. Inappropriate and unnecessary celebrity voice casting has often been a distraction in the films of Dreamworks Animation, but that's not a problem here.

The film gallops through its 98-minute running time, imparting lessons here and there, but mostly happy to tell the story of a boy and his dragon. The 3D effects will likely thrill those who pay to see them, though 3D at its best still reminds me of old ViewMaster slides.

How to Train Your Dragon should be just as enjoyable in 2D as it is in 3D. That's the great thing about a good movie: you forget the format you're watching and get caught up in waiting to see what happens next.

* UPDATED 3/30: Author's name corrected. Thanks to commenter Luanne.