I hated that I missed seeing How to Train Your Dragon on the big screen. Having watched it on DVD this week, I think it’s one of the best animated films I’ve seen in a long time, and, while I know that this might sound blasphemous, I think I like it better than Toy Story 3. Even though the film’s message isn’t anything new, it’s certainly one that younger viewers need to hear over and over again.
How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young boy living in a Viking village that just so happens to be frequently attacked by dragons. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but Hiccup is the son of Stoick (Gerard Butler), the leader of the village. Picture a Viking and you’re most likely thinking of Stoick. Hiccup, on the other hand, is skinny, timid, and is only interested in killing or capturing a dragon inasmuch as it impresses either his father or the young ladies of the village. During a particularly intense dragon attack, he miraculously downs a Night Fury, a dragon that no one has ever seen before let alone killed. In Viking lore, it is the most dangerous dragon in existence. Yet when Hiccup follows the trail of the downed dragon, he realizes that everything he has ever learned about dragons is wrong. His fast friendship with Toothless, the name he gives the Night Fury, turns his world upside down and sets him on a course that will change his entire village.
Few animated films come close to the visual accomplishments of a Pixar film, but How to Train Your Dragon certainly does. It benefits from some strong voice acting and good comedic casting including Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in bit parts. Mintz-Plasse’s character, Fishlegs, adds some humorous dialogue that draws from role-playing games of which dragons are often a part. The dragons are fantastically drawn and just as humorous as the inept Viking teens attempt to capture and/or slay them. The score works great, and the closing credits begin with a song, “Sticks and Stones” (in the video below), by Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros. I wish it would have had a more prominent place within the film because it could have worked perfectly with some of the aerial scenes.
How to Train Your Dragon works on a couple of levels. First, it encourages parents to take their children seriously. Many of us are familiar with the biblical commandment for children to honor their parents. However, there are also numerous instances that reverse this equation as well. Throughout the film, Hiccup attempts to honor his father but is often over-looked or simply brushed aside. Stoick does not create an environment in which Hiccup can flourish and, in the process, does not honor his own son. In a world where many children feel pressure from their parents to conform to particular roles or become something they’re not, this film stresses the importance of embracing children for who they are and what they can become.
Second, while this theme has been depicted in a variety of ways, especially in films targeted to younger audiences, it is something that should be repeated continuously. Hiccup learns rather quickly that dragons aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be. In fact, they might not be anything more harmful than flying dogs…if you take the time to get to know one. Hiccup tells Astrid (America Ferrera) that he realized early on that Toothless was just as afraid as he was. As they slowly realize that neither of them mean the other any harm, they begin to conquer their fears together. In the process, they also provide healing for each other as well, Hiccup provides physical healing for Toothless, while Toothless fills an emotional void for Hiccup.
How to Train Your Dragon also includes a couple of interesting twists that one does not find in such films. The first serves to “de-monsterize” the dragons. Just when we think that Hiccup’s father is going to be the main roadblock to the budding friendship between Hiccup and Toothelss (and for a time he is), we see that the dragons are victims of an oppressive parental figure as well. They raid the Vikings’ village not because they want to, but because they have to feed the insatiable appetite of their “queen bee,” a massive beast seemingly more dangerous than a Night Fury. The second twist comes at the end of the film which has Hiccup paying a price for his heroism in ways that many protagonists of animated films often do not. The loses the lower half of his left leg in his attempts to both liberate the dragons and save the Vikings. As such, he becomes a mirror of Toothless, who lost part of his tail when Hiccup downed him at the beginning of the film.
In the realm of animated films, Pixar may be king; however, with How to Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks proves that it is a worthy challenger. This is a must see for adults and kids alike.
How to Train Your Dragon (98 mins) is rated PG for fantasy action sequences and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.