How To Train Your Dragon

Ever since my childhood, I have always been fascinated by dragons. Books about dragons, movies with dragons, and games featuring dragons have as such always held a great appeal to me. Today, I will be looking at the most recent addition to the many, many dragon-centric fantasy films I’ve seen, How To Train Your Dragon.

A computer-animated movie by Dreamworks, How To Train Your Dragon stars Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a boy living in the Viking island settlement of Berk, an island regularly beset by marauding gangs of wild and vicious dragons. Hiccup, the son of the clan leader Stoick (Gerard Butler), wants to prove himself to his dad and the rest of the Vikings, but he is an awkward, gawky tinkerer in a society that values brawn and toughness. Attempting to prove he’s not completely useless in fighting off dragon raids, Hiccup shoots down a dragon he believes to be the elusive “Night Fury”, the rarest and most dangerous of all dragons. Naturally, nobody believes him, and Hiccup goes off to try and finish the creature to finally earn the clan’s respect. While he finds the dragon, he balks at killing it at the last minute and the dragon simply flees. Stoick sets up an expedition with the other Vikings to go and try to find the dragons’ nest, while entering Hiccup and the other young vikings into dragon-slaying training with Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick’s peg-legged and axe-handed friend.

The training is where the meat of the plot takes place, with Hiccup roundly shunned or mocked by his peers, particularly Astrid (America Ferrera) the most popular and competent fighter of the young vikings. Disheartened by his inability to properly fight a dragon to save his life, Hiccup goes searching for the Night Fury he downed to try and figure out why it didn’t kill him when he set it free. Hiccup discovers the Night Fury in a little valley, grounded by a chunk of its tail being missing. Hiccup approaches the dragon, and despite its initial hostility, wins its trust when he can prove he means it no harm. Nicknaming the Night Fury “Toothless” for its hidden set of teeth, Hiccup manages to befriend the dragon and is surprised to find the relentless scourge of his people is rather intelligent and friendly. The close proximity allows Hiccup to learn a lot more about dragons than most vikings had ever been able to, such as an almost phobic dislike of eel or a little spot that will knock them out if rubbed, and allows him to apply it in his training. Hiccup rapidly goes from an absolute joke to the most promising trainee on the island, much to Stoick’s surprise and pride and Astrid’s dismay and bewilderment.

Through the training, Hiccup forms a strong friendship with Toothless and puts his tinkering skills to work to set up a mechanical replacement for Toothless’s missing tail fin. Since it can only work properly when operated by Hiccup himself, the two form another important bond; they can only fly when they’re working together. Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless robs him of his desire to impress his father and the other Vikings by slaying a dragon, and he begins to work towards finding a way for Vikings and dragons to coexist. He is eventually assisted in this matter by Astrid, who follows Hiccup in an attempt to learn how he got so good at handling dragons so fast and naturally discovers Toothless before Hiccup manages to earn her trust. On a flight with Toothless, Hiccup and Astrid accidentally discover the dragon’s nest and find out that the dragons raid the Vikings for livestock because they are being forced to offer vast amounts of food to an enormous primordial dragon. Hiccup is convinced by this information to try and show the other Vikings that it is possible to coexist with dragons, but Stoick refuses to believe it captures Toothless to find the way to the nest and destroy it. Aware that the Vikings have no chance against the monster dragon, Hiccup is forced to step up and rally the Viking children to help him save the day.

Plot-wise, I did not find How To Train Your Dragon particularly original; A boy and his dragon is something that has been done before, as is the gawky but likable loser struggling to earn the approval of his family and peers while getting the girl along the way. However, I thought the execution of those plot points was done well enough to compensate for their familiarity. Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless is both heartwarming and incredibly funny to watch developing, and Hiccup realizing the way he wants to gain approval at the outset is wrong helps the movie tackle some deeper issues with its plot points. With Hiccup and Stoick’s contrasting reactions to dragons, How To Train Your Dragon does make some points about humanity’s tendency to demonize pests and predators potentially dangerous to them, which could be carried to a wider commentary on the foolishness of ignorance-based prejudice and violence in general. The movie seems to take a positive approach to this; the violence born of ignorance can be solved if the forces in conflict take time to try and understand one another instead of assuming the opposing force is evil. Even the primordial tyrant dragon is not so much presented as malicious as it is a dangerous force of nature provoked by the Vikings laying siege to the nest. While for the most part it’s pretty likely you’ll see a fair number of plot turns coming, the movie avoids making you roll your eyes through use of good and often witty dialogue, particularly Hiccup’s more humorous deadpan reactions to things going badly. I also enjoyed that the movie actually demonstrated a dragon-riding scenario in which it makes sense for the wild but intelligent dragon to go along with the arrangement; Toothless can’t fly without Hiccup, so it’s natural that he would cooperate with Hiccup in order to get off the ground.

An important element of film, particularly animation, is how well the visuals work. This is one of How To Train Your Dragon’s real strengths, as the movie is quite impressive visually and is often able to convey things with simple images rather than words. Toothless and the other dragons never speak a line of dialogue, but they are given large faces and huge expressive eyes to better communicate nonverbally. Without ever speaking, Toothless conveys to the audience a strong personality as an intelligent, friendly, and playful creature, and for the most part dragons not involved in marauding come across as rather bright and affectionate social animals, albeit quite vicious when provoked. Similarly, the human characters are able to convey a great deal with just their facial expressions, and we don’t need to be told how they’re feeling to understand it; when Stoick berates Hiccup for befriending a dragon behind his back and storms out, there is a rather emotional moment where he closes the door and stands there for a moment before sighing. He says nothing, and there is no voiceover for the moment, but the animators clearly convey in his face the very complex mixture of anger, regret, and even betrayal that he feels in the moment.

The designs for the dragons are also a major point in the movie’s favor; each of the breeds of dragon has a very unique feel to it, with some resembling large bird-lizards, some having a distinctly serpentine appearence, and some appearing more mammalian. The tyrant dragon in particular has a unique and intimidating design, resembling something that lumbered out of the Jurassic Period to dwell among its much smaller descendants. The creators also avoided the common technique of making a fantastic animal resemble a mundane one in its behavior; Toothless demonstrates behaviors clearly lifted from a variety of other animals, but their synthesis helps keep him unique. While in some ways, he acts like a large, affectionate cat, Toothless also shows many animals’ discomfort when Hiccup looks directly at him (the forward-facing eyes on humans means we look distinctly aggressive to many creatures), sometimes experiments with mimicking Hiccup, and displays a horselike aversion to physical contact until his trust has been given. The dragons aren’t pinned down to a specific animal in their behavior patterns and traits, which really helps give the impression that they are their own fantastic beast.

How To Train Your Dragon is pretty easy to sort demographically; it may not be the most rewarding thing for an adult moviegoer on their own, but it makes for a good family film that can be appreciated by children of a variety of ages without being too boring for the parents. It’s not quite Pixar-quality, but Dreamworks ought to be rather proud of this film.

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