How to Train Your Dragon

March 26, 2010
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Review by Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette

  • According to ancient British legends, King Alfred wasn’t a big fan of the Vikings. He spent several years of his reign ousting the Danish warriors, who burned monasteries and killed unarmed monks. Good thing the real Vikings didn’t train dragons.

    The warriors of How to Train Your Dragon, a 2010 animated hit, bear practically no similarities to the historical Vikings. Though they plunk around in armor and grow long beards, about the only creatures they seem to kill are dragons, the local pests who steal their sheep. This film is less history and more fantasy, an animated film that dishes up unexpected depth along with its sarcasm and scenes of flying dragons. While the film features many of the stereotypes of modern family films—teenage rebellion, befriending forbidden creatures who aren’t what they seem—Dragon surpasses all of these tropes by telling a story of friendship.

    Hiccup, stick-thin son of the chieftain of Berk, is the awkward village outcast. Everyone seems to be ashamed of him, his father most of all. Instead of hunting on the seas, Hiccup prefers to work at the forge—he’s the only kid in town who dreads dragon training, where all youths learn to defeat dragons their parents have captured over the years. The other kids make fun of Hiccup because he doesn’t share their outward bravery or brawn. When he wants to prove himself by killing a dragon at the beginning of the movie, mentor and blacksmith Gobber tells him, “You need to stop all…this.”

    “But you just pointed to all of me,” Hiccup replies. Even Hiccup’s name suggests his incompatibility: his father’s name is Stoick, and other children in the town go by Tuffnut, Snotlout, and Astrid. Hiccup just doesn’t fit.

    While no one in the village is watching, Hiccup shoots a cannon into the sky during a dragon raid. By chance, he shoots the Night Fury, a dragon no Viking has ever captured or killed. When he finds the downed Night Fury in the forest, Hiccup has a chance to meet a living dragon up close—and to discover how little his fellow villagers know about the beasts.

    Night Furies, according to the ancient dragon book Hiccup reads alone in his father’s hall, are the most enigmatic and dangerous of beasts. Instead of killing them on sight, the book advises Vikings to run and hide. But the dragon, who Hiccup eventually names Toothless, is almost as helpless as the boy who shot him down.

    Later, when love interest Astrid asks Hiccup why he didn’t kill Toothless on sight, Hiccup says, “I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was.”

    In the end, the town comes to admire Hiccup for his bravery. Instead of doing the easy thing—killing a dragon—Hiccup decides to take the chance of understanding the creature. And Toothless rewards that friendship. Both Hiccup and Toothless conquer enemies and fly through the skies together, and each comes to mutually need the other. Bravery in this film does not mean macho individualism—instead, it shines through when two maimed individuals become friends and fight together.

    Dreamworks produces some of the lushest animated films on the market, and this movie is no exception. Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, fly through realistic forests and over oceans with picturesque rock arches rising into the sky. The dragons are the highlight, though. The animators designed a pantheon of dragons, each with different abilities and personalities. Watching Hiccup find the soft spot of each of these dragons is a pleasure—almost like watching Adam name the animals in person. And the scenes where Hiccup and Toothless perform aerial acrobatics are pure eye candy.

    The Academy deservedly nominated Dragon for Best Score as well as Best Animated Feature. John Powell’s score soars throughout the film, adding lightness and drama in all the right places. Powell even managed to make the bagpipes in the film’s theme sound both unobtrusive and glorious.

    Dragon uses fewer bathroom gags than either the original material (a book of the same title by Cressida Cowell) or many other animated films. Those it does employ fall naturally within the crude Viking world of the story—such as when Toothless, in an act of friendship, urges Hiccup to take a bite out of a half-digested raw fish. The film relies on Hiccup’s mature sarcasm to carry the humor of the story, making the story as memorable for teens and adults as for children.

    But some of the film’s logic proves a little skewed. The filmmakers never address the contingency that maybe the dragons are dangerous and unpredictable. It falls into a good dragon/bad dragon division: Hiccup tries to understand all the dragons except for one big and scary one at the end. Also, the film adheres to the typical children’s movie trope where children are wiser than their parents. Stoick, involved in his own concerns, never pays attention to Hiccup. Set on his own prejudices against dragons, Stoick won’t believe his son when he says dragons aren’t what they seem. And I never figured out how the Vikings can let both dragons and sheep run through town—you may train a dragon to wear a saddle, but that doesn’t mean it will stop eating the sheep, too.

    Let’s hope the sequel retains the charm and depth of the first film instead of settling into bathroom humor and gimmicks.

  • Release Date
    March 26, 2010
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