Animated fantasy Dragon Rider matches top-drawer voice talent to a lightweight globe-trotting yarn
Damon Smith reviews the latest new releases to watch at home while cinemas are closed. This week, an orphan boy (voiced by Freddie Highmore) finds an unlikely ally in a mythical fire-breathing beast (Thomas Brodie Sangster) in the computer-animated adventure Dragon Rider
DRAGON RIDER (PG, 91 mins) Animation/Fantasy/Adventure. Featuring the voices of Thomas Brodie Sangster, Felicity Jones, Freddie Highmore, Sir Patrick Stewart, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, David Brooks, Glenn Wrage, Peter Marinker. Director: Tomer Eshed.
Released: February 12 (available exclusively on Sky Cinema)
BASED on German author Cornelia Funke's best-selling 1997 children's book, director Tomer Eshed's sleek computer-animated adventure glides in the slipstream of the vastly superior How To Train Your Dragon.
Both pictures chronicle the coming of age of an alienated human boy through a touching friendship with a benevolent winged beast, which has yet to realise its potential in a cruel, unforgiving world.
Dragon Rider harnesses the vocal talents of a starry British cast including Sir Patrick Stewart and Felicity Jones to lend gravitas to a lightweight globe-trotting yarn that gently plucks heartstrings and occasionally dazzles the eyes with vertiginous action sequences.
Comical flourishes in Johnny Smith's script, like a mechanoid antagonist who briefly halts a murderous rampage to check his profile on the Fetch-A-Match dating website, sometimes miss the mark.
A protracted narrative interlude in India, which welcomes lively vocal sparring between husband and wife Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar, unabashedly promotes lazy cultural stereotypes for easy laughs.
However, there is a big heart beating furiously beneath the film's digitally rendered scales. The execution may be a tad clumsy, but director Eshed and legions of animators successfully claw their way to a crowd-pleasing resolution that earns a satisfied grin and maybe even a tear-filled eye.
For hundreds of years, dragons have lived in peaceful seclusion from destructive, avaricious humans. Bottleneck (voiced by Glenn Wrage) presides over the last remaining herd of beasts in a valley, which is also home to furry creatures called brownies.
When deforestation threatens the verdant sanctuary, outcast silver dragon Firedrake (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and brownie best friend Sorrel (Jones) plot a daring course of action.
Before the next full moon, they intend to locate the fabled Rim of Heaven, which wise elder Slatebeard (Peter Marinker) rhapsodises as "a paradise for dragons where the moon flowers shine".
Taking flight to a nearby city under cover of darkness, Firedrake and Sorrel seek temporary refuge in a riverside warehouse so they might consult an all-knowing oracle called "the internet".
Instead, they encounter an orphan named Ben (Freddie Highmore) and mistake the teenage thief for a mystical dragon rider. The bickering trio glean valuable clues about the Rim of Heaven from Australian conservationist Professor Greenbloom (David Brooks) and folklore expert Subisha Gulab (Syal).
Meanwhile, dragon-hunting behemoth Nettlebrand (Stewart) learns of the globe-trotting odyssey and gives chase.
Dragon Rider doesn't shy away from obvious comparisons and introduces the character of Ben during the red-carpet premiere of an animated film entitled How To Tame Your Dragon.
Firedrake is no match for the childlike wonder of Toothless and Highmore's heartfelt vocal performance pales next to Jay Baruchel's moving embodiment of Viking boy Hiccup.
Judged on its own modest merits, Eshed's fantastical odyssey boasts impressive visuals and Stewart roars through his supporting performance with a generous serving of theatrical ham.