Written for RAF News Feb 2021
Owing an obvious debt to the How to Train Your Dragon series, Dragon Rider follows young Firedrake’s courageous attempt to find a utopian paradise safe from humans.
The surface difference is that Dragon Rider allows its fire-breathing beasts to talk for themselves, and introduces a larger world of mythical creatures including dwarves, elves and pixies. It also has a contemporary setting, bringing with it jokes about the internet, Skype and online dating. There seems to be plenty of opportunity then to explore new ideas, but unfortunately it ends up a poor imitation.
In a meta-textual stroke of sheer audacity, the ‘dragon rider’ takes the form of orphan Ben (Freddie Highmore) who throws on a costume and impersonates the lead character of a film-within-the-film titled ‘How to Tame Your Dragon’. This would be a funny joke if the film were able to separate itself, avoid comparison or at the very least come out from under its looming shadow – this it fails to do, despite looking the part. The accomplished level of animation with beautifully naturalistic lighting is surprisingly upheld, but it is the storytelling and characterisation that suffers.
Ben is introduced as a thief on the run, and though a backstory is planted that will explain away his faults, it shapes his character for a large part of the film as deceptive, untrustworthy and simply unlikeable. This would be fine if the slack were taken up by Firedrake (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) or Forrest Brownie sidekick Sorrel (Felicity Jones) but sadly, as the title implies, Ben steals the spotlight.
The simple mission to find the so-called Rim of Heaven is complicated by hurdles and side-quests taking place in various exotic locations, introducing more and more characters. Added to this there is an arch-villain, a metal dragon-eating creature named Nettlebrand (an excellently cast Patrick Stewart), who has eyed Firedrake as a meal.
There is too much happening in Dragon Rider for it to be coherent. Individual scenes look well put together, but zoom out and it just becomes messy. Though lacking in substance, there is enough momentum and Patrick Stewart to keep it entertaining.