Numerous tasks and technical issues have prevented me from being able to cover all of the movies I’d planned to get to, so I am going to end my spotlight on computer-generated films on a high note, with my favorite entry from DreamWorks and one of the best examples of the medium I’ve ever seen. How to Train Your Dragon, despite its narrative issues, is a wondrously crafted movie that is as enjoyable as it is gorgeous.
What a rough life to live.
Our young hero Hiccup opens the film by introducing his village, a sturdy thing that has endured for centuries. Said village has one major problem–dragons–but the boy’s fellow Vikings are none too fond of evacuating. These dragons rain fire on the village, giving this exciting action scene a stark contrast between its intense flame and its midnight sky. Here we meet Hiccup’s father Stoick, a strong and hardy chief of his tribe; Astrid, Hiccup’s romantic desire for reasons unknown, who is nonetheless likable in her own right; and numerous other children who are rarely so much as addressed by name but are useful for comedic purposes. We are also told about the attributes of various types of dragons: while demonstrations of man and beast would be more welcome than descriptions of each, the sheer amount of detail gives flavor to this book series-derived setting.
Stoick cares for his son’s physical well-being but is otherwise disappointed almost contemptuously with him. Hiccup wants to kill a dragon in order to prove himself, which his father strongly forbids. In an event as fortuitous as it is dangerous, the long-feared and enigmatic dragon known as the Night Fury flies overhead, which the otherwise accident-prone Hiccup somehow manages to ensnare. Even this success doesn’t redeem Hiccup in the eyes of his father or any of his peers, and the boy expresses an otherwise normal desire to be accepted while also maintaining his own identity, which brings its own risks.
With a village under constant threat of dragon attack, and with a plot seemingly working its way up toward a standard if fairly unspoken message of accepting others, Stoick has a difficult decision: encourage Hiccup to be what he wants to be, or conscript the boy for the sake of the people, whether he likes it or not?
Our hero, meanwhile, ventures out early the next morning, looking for the Night Fury he shot down. He pulls out a knife and prepares to kill the dragon, a once majestic threat who now only whimpers, but it’s too much: while Hiccup is a rather aimless protagonist with few redeeming personality traits and no charisma, he is humane enough to set the beast free. It roars in its odd savior’s face and flies off without harming him.
The boy and his father have both had a change of heart; the older is now willing to let his son fight dragons, which the younger no longer wants any part of. The father wins out, however, and while the movie portrays his social-conformity desires negatively, there is no way of ending the threat of dragons except to kill them, as far as he knows. (Actual ending of life on either side is sometimes but rarely shown.)
Training a Dragon Slayer
Hiccup is sent off to train alongside his peers, including Astrid, and none of them are excited to deal with him. They have little time to complain, however, as a small dragon is let out of its cage, forcing the children to learn as they go. One of them hilariously rattles off arbitrary numerical statistics like he’s playing a role-playing game, but Hiccup unfortunately makes a mess of his and the others’ first practice session.
Our noble but decreasingly interesting hero goes back to where the Night Fury went down, which is in a beautiful, sunny glade. Said dragon is desperately trying to fly around but is missing a stabilizing part of its tail, which Hiccup is smart enough to note. (The poor thing can’t even control its movement enough to properly catch fish.)
The movie begins steadily going back and forth between training the adolescents for battle and focusing on Hiccup as he tries to befriend the dragon he injured. Notably, a number of the children who disrespect him are not much more competent than he is, which is funny at the risk of becoming frustrating and rather sad. Later, Hiccup touchingly gives the rather adorable and cat-like Night Fury a fish as well as a name: “Toothless.” (You will see why.)
The pacing of these alternating scenes is very well done, as the excitement of the training sequences balances out the compassion of the friendship-establishing moments between a boy and his dragon. “He’s like a big cat,” a friend of mine said when she watched this film, and indeed Toothless is a playful creature who wants to be treated well but is understandably slow to trust humans. Hiccup, actually a rather skilled craftsman, creates a prosthetic tail component for Toothless, which he tries to affix while the beast is eating. Toothless realizes what is being done, and the requisite first-person flight sequence begins–in quite an unexpected way!
The island the various characters share is absolutely beautiful, its landscape boasting dense forests and impressively rendered water, and a scene that could have been a shallow vanity piece for the movie is instead one of its highlights. While the music sounds anything but Nordic, it’s incredibly rousing, and it greatly complements the action throughout the whole film.
Hiccup finally manages to make progress in his training, much of which comes by discovering various things Toothless enjoys. The boy essentially becomes a dragon tamer, not just of the Night Fury but of all of his opponents during training, astounding everyone (especially the people who see their war with dragons as inevitably leading to one side’s extinction) and causing Astrid to be resentful of Hiccup’s meteoric rise to fame.
Toothless and its new “owner” grow closer as a flying team, even as the boy still makes some slapstick mistakes that his dragon bears the brunt of. The movie’s flight scenes are varied and simply beautiful enough to keep from becoming repetitive, even as Hiccup’s mastery over dragons doesn’t really cause him to develop as a person. Most of what he has going for him is his willingness to reason with the creatures.
Stoick congratulates Hiccup over his training successes but is unaware of the boy’s friendship with the Night Fury. (One would think that if Stoick were as attentive as he claimed, he’d know something was odd as soon as Hiccup subdued his first training dragon without the use of force. Indeed, the boy learns to calm dragons by using touch alone.) Meanwhile Astrid, who actually does grow suspicious of Hiccup and Toothless, ends up being taken by both for a ride of her own, which enchants her yet forces her to make her own decisions of loyalty. By this point the girl has grown to legitimately care for Toothless and for Hiccup, making her one of the most rounded characters in the movie. She’d make a more interesting hero than Hiccup does–not because she’s a girl but because she has confidence and a personality that develops and changes through experience.
And so must everyone choose.
Toothless gives our heroes a glimpse of the dragons’ nest, complete with dozens of the creatures themselves. Their cattle-stealing actions from earlier in the film, and the humans’ violent response, are presented in a new light, along with a gigantic monster that happens to be inside this nest. (The dragons are not fond of this monster, but why don’t they just gang up on it?) The warriors of Hiccup’s tribe are preparing for an assault, whereas he wants to conceal the location of this place. He tries to convince one of his friends to help, who all too quickly goes from being aghast to being agreeable.
When Hiccup is finally confronted by his father regarding the situation with the Night Fury, listening to the boy becomes an aggravation as he stammers (not because of an impediment but because of his lack of preparedness), keeps secrets to the point of appearing dishonest, and doesn’t actually explain anything; his father isn’t much better at communicating, and it’s hard to fault the man for not listening when his son doesn’t seem to take a deep breath and actually try to talk, slowly and clearly, about what is going on and why.
Several characters end up in danger in a fiery sequence that could perhaps be scary for young viewers but is excellently planned out. The enormous monster from earlier returns, pulverizing the adult Vikings’ defenses and their ships, but numerous dragons have their own plans. Why the action scenes are some of the best parts of a movie that preaches nonviolence, I have no idea, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen a movie try to spread this message and have this same problem. Even still, these scenes look amazing on a large screen, as does pretty much everything else in this movie. (Mild spoiler) Strength of arms really is what saves the day in this plot, robbing Hiccup’s unique mediation abilities of their value and making them seem like they were means to an end.
All in all, however, even if the plot doesn’t always seem to make sense and isn’t always told well (too much of it feels like recitations of fact sheets instead of letting the audience figure things out on their own), the ending is satisfyingly heartwarming, and it creatively makes the most of one of the characters’ unfortunate situations.
Conclusion: The eye of the beholder
How to Train Your Dragon has some writing issues that I’ve never really gotten over, especially in the story’s refusal to ultimately commit to its own rather blatant message, but they’re vastly overshadowed by the film’s incredible art direction and music. These things alone are more than enough of a reason to watch and enjoy the movie. Hiccup and Stoick both become tolerable, eventually, and the other characters in the film are always fun, giving the story a consistently uplifting mood.
While the premise isn’t especially original or creative, it knows the value of its own ingredients, especially in the striking variety found in the dragon designs. The film is at its weakest when it actually tries to tell a story, especially when it attempts to force romance. Nevertheless, as pure and simple art in motion, this is a masterpiece that deserves your attention.
As a closing note, this review is dedicated to my longtime best friend, with whom I originally watched this film. She is working to establish her own writing business on her site, The Naturalist’s Quill, and she also maintained a Master’s-research blog, Voice from the Sea. If you’ve ever held a curiosity about nature, science, or especially marine life, I would highly recommend checking out some samples of her work, including this article featured in Sporting Classics Magazine.
Image credits (property of DreamWorks and Paramount)
Movie poster — source (spoilers)
Astrid and Hiccup — source
Stoick — source
Hiccup and Toothless, the Night Fury — source
The adolescents — source
Arena training — source
Flying scene — source
Huge monster — source (spoilers)