How to Train Your Dragon
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
How to Train Your Dragon is a good old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. That’s something of a rarity these days.
In a village called Berk, a rugged little place stuck between hopeless and “freezing to death,” the Vikings resolutely stick around. It’s an old village full of new buildings because, unlike other places that have to deal with pests like mice or mosquitoes, they have to put up with fire-breathing dragons that keep burning down the village.
Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, the Hope and Heir to the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans, is the full, heavyweight name of the lightweight author behind the “autobiographical” account that is How to Train Your Dragon: Book 1. He is the village’s biggest embarrassment and he’s also the chief’s son. He simply doesn’t have the “it” factor when it comes to the Viking way.
Sent to dragon slayer academy in order to toughen up, Hiccup has to compete against much tougher kids who look forward to getting burned, mauled, scarred, or worse.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, Tropic Thunder) wants to show ‘em all just how tough he is and he’s thrilled to stumble on a dragon he nailed with his latest contraption, a catapult-type device that managed to wound a Night Fury, the “offspring of lightning and death.” It’s a particularly ferocious dragon that no Viking has ever managed to kill before.
He wants to do his dad proud and slay the dragon, but then he locks eyes with the beast and he can’t do it. He looked at the dragon and saw himself. Both were scared creatures.
As previously mentioned, How to Train Your Dragon is based on the first of a series of books by Cressida Cowell (serving as the translator of Hiccup’s original Norse text), but the movie takes a dramatic departure from the source material. In Book 1, the Vikings pride themselves on their dragon-training skills and the dragon boot camp is intended to teach young ones how to capture and train dragons.
In the movie, the Vikings are at war with the dragons – all dragons – and it’s an alteration that lends itself to interpretation as a commentary on the current political climate. To put it another way, did the mini army of four screenwriters turn Hiccup into Obama?
Holding fast to a “the older generations have it all wrong” mentality, Hiccup is warned in boot camp that dragons will always, always, always go for the kill. And yet that wasn’t the case with the Night Fury, which he affectionately dubbed “Toothless.” Hiccup goes on to teach his fellow villagers about how easy it is to deal with the dragons once they understand them. Dragons don’t like eels, but they do like the smell of fresh grass and they roll over when tickled; and young dragons will follow a dot of light on the ground like a curious little puppy.
As Hiccup’s training continues, at one point Hiccup yells at his father in defense of his non-violent tactics of dealing with all manner of dragons, telling him, “They’ve killed hundreds of us; we’ve killed thousands of them!” And Hiccup sees the writing on the wall: “Our parents’ war was about to become ours.”
As part of that war, Hiccup and Toothless enter a climactic battle against a gigantic, horrifying dragon that terrorized the other dragons and held them in servitude like worker bees to their queen. “Let my dragons go!” is never uttered, but that’s the idea.
Hiccup's father (right)
It is it unfair to read Obama’s rather amenable world view into what is ultimately a children’s movie? Or... maybe... is that all the more reason to be analytical?
Far-fetched, off base, or otherwise, the political agenda is something to ponder, and that’s not something that can be said of very many 3-D CGI-animated movies based on children’s books.
In any event, the movie works and it works well as a free-standing, solid adventure piece. The fact that it’s in 3-D doesn’t hurt, either. The 3-D experience and big screen eye candy is worth the extra bucks.
And, like the movie’s politics, there’s also some humor to spice things up for the older crowd.
One gem of a joke involves the helmet Hiccup’s father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, 300), gives to his son. Stoick, a huge, burly man with overflowing red locks, tells his son his helmet was made from one-half of his dead mother’s breast plate. Stoick wears the other half. It’s a well-placed joke, delivered just right to float out there, waaay above the little ones’ heads and ready for the taking by those paying attention.
At its core, How to Train Your Dragon is the story of a boy finding his own identity and his own way in the world. As such, this movie does a terrific job of getting that message across.
After your own father tells you, “You’ve got to stop being you if you want to fight dragons” how much lower can you go?
Well, Hiccup rises to the occasion and, by using wits rather than brawn, he proves his worth. Demonstrating his own version of Viking ingenuity, he makes an artificial fin and harness for Toothless, giving the dragon an opportunity to learn to fly again.
There’s one little scene in particular that’s really cool. It might fly right by many, but it’s key to Hiccup’s character development. While riding on Toothless’ back and zipping through the air, Hiccup drops his cheat sheet of settings for his harness and fin doohickey. Lost forever, it’s a simple little movie moment with a simple little message, simple but significant: Sometimes you’ve gotta throw away the cheat sheet and fly.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.