Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Animationscreencaps.com.

 

Cast
Jay Baruchel – Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III
Gerard Butler – Stoick the Vast
Robert Atkin Downes – Ack
Kieron Elliott – Hoark the Haggard
Craig Ferguson – Gobber the Belch
America Ferrera – Astrid Hofferson
Jonah Hill – Snotlout Jorgenson
Ashley Jensen – Phlegma the Fierce
Philip McGrade – Starkard
Christopher Mintz-Plasse – Fishlegs Ingerman
T.J. Miller – Tuffnut Thorston
David Tennant – Spitelout Jorgenson
Kristen Wiig – Ruffnut Thorston
Sources of InspirationHow to Train Your Dragon, a British novel by Cressida Cowell, 2003
Release Dates – (Strangely, IMDB doesn’t list the March 21st premiere)
March 21st, 2010 at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California, USA (premiere)
March 26th, 2010 in the USA (general release)
Run-time – 98 minutes
Directors – Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Composers – John Powell
Worldwide Gross – $494 million
Accolades – 25 wins and 62 nominations, including 2 Oscar nominations


2010 in History

The Burj Khalifa becomes the world’s tallest man-made structure when it opens in Dubai, UAE
The Togo national football team are attacked in the Cabinda exclave of Angola by the FLEC, killing three
The capital city of the island nation of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, is devastated by a massive earthquake, resulting in widespread displacement and the deaths of over 316,000 (recovery efforts are still ongoing)
The five-year Chadian Civil War officially comes to an end
Another massive earthquake strikes Chile less than a month after Haiti, killing around 525
The Kasubi Tombs, a Ugandan UNESCO World Heritage site, are almost totally destroyed in a fire
A series of volcanic eruptions from Iceland’s Mount Eyjafjallajökull produce ash plumes which disrupt air traffic across Europe
BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform explodes and sinks in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and devastating the environment for miles around
The beginnings of the Greek government-debt crisis are observed when the eurozone and the IMF impose strict austerity measures on the country
94 people are killed in the Lahore massacre in Pakistan after two Ahmadiyya mosques are attacked by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan during Friday prayers
Ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks clash in southern Kyrgyzstan, resulting in hundreds of deaths
Julia Gillard becomes Australia’s first female Prime Minister
WikiLeaks reveals the “Afghan War Diary” to the public, a collection of over 90,000 reports about US involvement in the nation since 2004
The Swine Flu epidemic is declared officially over by the WHO
A third massive earthquake rocks Christchurch in New Zealand, prompting doomsday prophecies worldwide
The Netherlands Antilles are dissolved, although they remain under Dutch control
33 men are rescued during the Copiapó mining accident in Chile, after having endured 69 days trapped underground
The International Space Station sets a new record for continuous human occupation in space, having been inhabited since 2000
Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi is finally released from the house arrest she had been under since 1989
Birth of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr.


 

Yeah… I think the 5th was a tad optimistic.

It’s been a lot longer than planned, but it’s finally time to discuss How to Train Your Dragon – fittingly, we’re going from a film about mother/daughter relationships to one that explores the dynamic between a father and son, and both are set around the same time period, too. By the time this came out, I’d long since given up on DreamWorks and hadn’t been to see one of their films in theatres since around the time of Shrek 2 (2004). Luckily, a friend of mine bought me the DVD as a gift and, on their recommendation, I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did, as Dragon turned out to be one of the studio’s best efforts, taking a simple, well-trodden story and offering a fresh new take on it that made this an instant favourite with animation fans.

The original book series by Cressida Cowell first came to the attention of DreamWorks executives around 2004, with producer Bonnie Arnold taking an interest in it after she finished working on Over the Hedge (2006). With the rights to the story acquired, Arnold kept her focus on the project over the next few years, until the studio’s co-president Bill Damaschke asked her what she want to work on next. She promptly chose Dragon, and so began development on one of the studio’s biggest hits, with directorial duo Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois taking the helm following their success with Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. We’ll get into the individual aspects of the production below, but for now, let’s get stuck in with these characters – this article is late enough without delaying any further!

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

Hiccup close-up during training

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (great name, he knows) is our protagonist for this film, a young Viking living in the fictional village of Berk, many centuries ago. (It’s not clear exactly where Berk is from Hiccup’s melodramatic description, but the accents on the adults imply that it is perhaps a Scottish settlement, despite the Vikings’ Scandinavian origins.) One of this film’s many strong points is that, although Hiccup is hardly a new or unique character, he is handled with such finesse that we are quickly swept up in his story anyway; his experiences are relatable ones at heart, no matter how fantastical the circumstances may be.

You see, Hiccup’s story is one of prejudice and acceptance. When we first meet the shy fifteen-year-old, he is struggling to find his place in a physically tough and traditionally masculine society, filled to the brim with brawny he-men of which his father happens to be the brawniest. Even beyond the realm of stereotypes, it makes sense that it would be this way; the life of a Viking would be hard enough on its own, but these particular ones are regularly beset by hordes of vicious dragons, so being tough is a requirement if you want to stay alive. As they like to say of their hardships: “We’re Vikings – it’s an occupational hazard!”

Hiccup give me something to shoot at

In parallel with characters like Mulan, Hiccup starts out desperately trying to fit into the “mould” his society expects of him, but like her, he can only work with what he’s got. Since he lacks the bulk to fight or wield heavy weapons, he instead uses his wits to construct elaborate devices that will help him bring down the winged beasts without even touching them. To his credit, they work, even if his creations sometimes wreak havoc with their malfunctions, and the catapult Hiccup builds on the night we meet him takes down an elusive Night Fury, a species no Viking has ever captured before. Right from the start, the film establishes Hiccup as an innovator whose unusual methods will change his world in ways he hasn’t even imagined.

The film’s opening also introduces us to Hiccup’s father and chief of the village, Stoick the Vast, making a point of showing us the strained relationship between the two. We’ll get more into Stoick below, but Hiccup’s perspective of him at this point is tinged with a kind of deep-seated guilt, because he knows he’s nothing like the Viking his father wants him to be and his wacky gizmos only serve to embarrass them both. Yet it’s worth noting that despite Stoick’s frustrations with the boy, he does have his son’s best interests at heart. In an almost comical bit of irony, Stoick is refusing to allow Hiccup to learn how to kill dragons with the other teenagers, despite Hiccup’s insistence, because he’s afraid he’ll get hurt. It’s like Billy Elliot actually wanting to box, only to be prevented by his worrywart of a father. Makes for an unusual inversion of a common theme!

Hiccup poised to kill Toothless

However, Hiccup’s story quickly gets more complicated after he tracks down the Night Fury he shot, where he’s surprised to find it still alive in its trusses. The situation presents him with a moral dilemma, as he now has the perfect opportunity to kill an incredibly rare dragon and present its heart to his father, cementing his status as a true Viking forever after. Yet when he looks down into the stricken dragon’s eyes, his compassionate nature prevents him from going through with it – it’s one of the film’s many beautiful moments, as he realises that no matter what dogma he’s heard about dragons at home, they’re nothing like those descriptions in person. On the contrary, they’re living, breathing creatures like any other, not so different from Hiccup himself.

Seeing that the Night Fury is just as frightened as he is, Hiccup makes the brave decision to sacrifice his coveted glory and spares the dragon’s life, freeing him from his bonds – it’s a moment which decides the fate of Hiccup’s entire society from then on. Toothless, contrary to what Hiccup was expecting, then returns the favour by sparing his life, sparking the first seed of doubt in the boy’s mind about the accuracy of everything he’s been taught about these supposedly bloodthirsty beasts.

Hiccup sketching Toothless

Unfortunately, when Hiccup returns from the woods, he is greeted by some disturbing news from his father. Stoick has been convinced by his right-hand man, Gobber, to put Hiccup into dragon training after all! Of course, now that Hiccup has discovered first-hand that he simply cannot kill dragons, his former goal has become his worst nightmare. Still, there’s no going back now; with Stoick setting out on a last mission to find the dragons’ nest, he’s convinced that the time is ripe to whip his son into shape once and for all, so Hiccup is left trying to juggle two conflicting new goals.

From this point on, the film enters into a sleek bit of cinematographic symmetry, as Hiccup’s burgeoning friendship with the Night Fury (whom he dubs “Toothless”) is contrasted with scenes of his training progressing back in Berk. This is where the film’s prejudice angle comes into play, as Hiccup is the first Viking to have spent any real time trying to understand the dragons, which ironically propels him to the top of his class as he discovers all sorts of new tricks to placate the ones he’s pitted against. The point is made most clearly in the scene where Hiccup reads the dragon manual, which Gobber describes as, “Everything we know about every dragon we know of”. Upon finding a nearly blank entry on the mysterious Night Fury, Hiccup wordlessly throws down his own sketch of Toothless, demonstrating the superiority of his non-violent methods.

Toothless sketch on top of manual

Naturally, Hiccup’s classmates are astonished at the sudden change in the lad, but true to his character, Hiccup never lets this new-found popularity go to his head. It’s a testament to his moral fibre that even after achieving the very acceptance he was so eager for in the beginning, Hiccup’s conscience refuses to let him prioritise that over Toothless; the boy knows that his village’s way of dealing with dragons is backwards and ignorant, and he grows increasingly distant from the others as his secret friendship with Toothless deepens. Sadly, his unintentional prowess in training sets him squarely on the path to a dreadful final exam. As the top student, he wins the “honour” of getting to kill his first dragon in front of the whole village, the prospect of which is so terrible that he seriously considers fleeing Berk forever, even if it means leaving behind everything he’s ever known. It’s a low point for the character, as he can’t see any way to reconcile his new beliefs with the society he’s a part of, and it has left him feeling very alone.

However, throughout this whole process, one villager in particular has been keeping a very close eye on Hiccup. Astrid, a girl from Hiccup’s dragon training class, is just the kind of ideal Viking Hiccup originally wanted to be and starts out as the best in their class, until Hiccup’s time with Toothless begins to give him an advantage. Unlike the rest of their classmates, Astrid is not impressed by Hiccup’s remarkable improvement but suspicious of it – she’s every bit as intelligent as Hiccup is and, driven by curiosity and competitiveness, she finally manages to find out his secret.

Hiccup introducing Toothless to Astrid

It’s a tense moment, to say the least, but it’s also a central part of the film’s arc. Here at last is an opportunity for Hiccup to present the softer, more nuanced side of dragons to one of the village’s most staunchly traditional Vikings; if he can convince Astrid that Toothless isn’t some dangerous monster to be exterminated, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of Berk. It takes some work to get the message through to her, but together, boy and dragon show her that there’s more to each of them than meets the eye. What really seals the deal is Hiccup’s newfound confidence, which he’s gained through being true to himself and his own beliefs; with quiet assertiveness, Hiccup stands firm by Toothless’ side, proving to Astrid how far he’s willing to go to do what’s right. From then on, he has her trust and support.

Hiccup defends Toothless to Astrid

The matter finally comes to a head on the day of Hiccup’s final exam, where he demonstrates incredible courage by publicly rejecting his task of killing a dragon and pleads the animals’ case to the thunderstruck Vikings. Of course, ingrained prejudices are not overcome that easily, and Stoick loses his temper over what he sees as yet another public humiliation by his son; his fury sets the dragon off and nearly gets Hiccup killed, but, just in time, Toothless is able to bust into the pen and rescue his pal. Ever the pragmatist, Stoick then seizes his chance to capture the Night Fury, but the damage has been done.

Hiccup arguing with Stoick

In another of the film’s most emotionally-charged scenes, the despairing Hiccup begs his furious father to listen to his point of view, but Stoick is too wrapped up in his own stubbornness to consider that he might have been wrong. Throughout the film, their relationship has been marked by a lack of communication, with the more forceful Stoick projecting his ideals onto Hiccup (rather like what Elinor did with Merida). Now, in this critical moment, Stoick still won’t calm down long enough to listen to Hiccup’s side of the story, instead reading the boy’s actions as a betrayal of everything being a Viking is about. Thinking that Hiccup has rejected him, he thus abandons the boy (much as it pains him to do so), which leaves Hiccup himself at an emotional rock bottom.

It’s a familiar conflict in fiction, with the sensitive, bookish son pitted against a burly, hyper-masculine father, but the motivations and mindsets of both characters here are clear enough to keep each of them feeling sympathetic throughout. We know why Stoick feels the way he does about dragons, and we understand that he wants Hiccup to toughen up out of concern for the boy’s safety, but having learned about the dragons and their world alongside Hiccup, we yearn for the kid to find a way to break through to his father. The bottom line is that we know Stoick cares, and that makes theirs a relationship worth saving.

Hiccup talking to Astrid on cliff

After Stoick leaves, it is up to Astrid to get Hiccup out of his slump. He may still be angry and frustrated with himself for not being like the other Vikings, but Astrid knows that underneath that, Hiccup is sure that what he did was the right thing to do. Once again, the writers nail this scene in only a single line – when Astrid asks why he wouldn’t kill Toothless that day in the woods, Hiccup explains that he sympathised with the dragon, saying, “I looked at him, and I saw myself”. It’s sweet, poetic, and a good use of both characters, showcasing the way their differences complement each other, with Astrid’s more “masculine” desire to analyse and understand the practicalities of the situation balanced out by Hiccup’s more “feminine”, emotional response. I love it when the male lead in a big-budget Hollywood film like this doesn’t fit the gender norm of masculinity, using compassion rather than violence to resolve his conflicts.

Even in the climactic battle, in which Hiccup rescues Toothless and wins back his father’s respect, it is Hiccup’s tactical skills which really help him defeat the Red Death. Everything he’s learned from his reptilian friend comes into play, and with their friends’ help, they’re able to trick the behemoth into chasing them to its doom.

With the motivator of the dragon attacks removed, the dragons themselves are revealed to be more benevolent than previously thought, paving the way for a more tolerant and harmonious society in the future. However, Hiccup doesn’t come away unscathed, with the battle costing him a foot in an impressive example of realistic stakes for animation; this also makes for a nice parallel with Toothless, who lost a tailfin in Hiccup’s initial attack on him at the beginning. The dragon helps his friend get used to a prosthetic foot in a reflection of the way Hiccup helped Toothless regain his ability to fly with a prosthetic fin, showing us clearly how strong their bond truly is.

Hiccup touches Toothless #1

Ultimately, it is the friendship between these two which lies at this film’s heart, and it’s easy to see why so many people responded so strongly to it. Like other films such as The Fox and the Hound and Zootopia, How to Train Your Dragon uses an interspecies relationship to highlight the very topical issue of prejudice and the damage it can do, setting up a world in which dragons are feared, hated and misunderstood. It is implied that Hiccup relates to Toothless in the first place because he, too, is shunned by Viking society, but as he spends time with Toothless, he comes to understand him as an individual and recognises that the Vikings’ blind hatred of the creatures is baseless, with the scenes of Hiccup’s personal experiences neatly deconstructing and disproving what he’s being taught in Gobber’s lessons.

Hiccup’s story is a journey towards acceptance, both personal and societal, but it’s not just his own. After first learning to accept and love himself for who he is, and not who his society tells him he’s supposed to be, he then fights to get the same acceptance for Toothless, another maligned and despised creature. Hiccup is essentially working to dismantle the ingrained, structural prejudices of his society against the misunderstood, in the hopes of building a better life for all in the end. It’s certainly a timely tale, and one that only feels more relevant with each passing year. Hiccup is an inspiring take on a well-worn character type, and the conviction of his portrayal has you rooting for him from the very beginning. By the end of the film, he and his people have become better Vikings than they ever were before, and all it took was one person to question the way things were and, despite the risks, fight for change. If only DreamWorks could produce work like this more often!

Toothless looking up at Hiccup from clearing

Toothless, the Night Fury who Hiccup befriends, is in many ways more of a symbol than a character. He and the other dragons of this world are presented as animals; intelligent and individualistic, to be sure, but still driven mainly by instinct. That said, Toothless is certainly one of the smartest dragons and displays a complex, layered personality, which is what shows Hiccup how misunderstood Toothless and his kind are. He represents the Other, the unknown; the Vikings’ ignorance of the dragons’ lives has bred their prejudice against them, but thanks to Hiccup and Toothless, the two sides are gradually brought together in understanding.

As it happens, Toothless’ life has been rather tragic up to the point at which the story begins. If we take evidence from the later films into consideration, he is the last of his kind, having presumably lost his family at a young age, and at some point shortly thereafter he was enslaved by the Red Death’s mind control along with every other dragon near Berk. While engaging in the Red Death’s raids on the village, Toothless then has the misfortune of being shot out of the sky by a rookie Viking and loses a tailfin, which leaves him unable to fly and struggling to feed himself – as Gobber tells Hiccup, “A downed dragon, is a dead dragon”.

Toothless accepting his fate

However, what happens next surprises the young dragon just as much as it does his captor. When Hiccup ventures out to the woods to claim his prize, the sight of the still-living Toothless makes him pause. Toothless can clearly be seen accepting his fate with tired resignation before this, apparently expecting death from the humans just as surely as the Vikings have expected it from the dragons, but as Hiccup later tells Astrid, “I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was”. Hiccup has the sensitivity to recognise that killing this helpless dragon isn’t fair, so he sets him free. This good karma is instantly repaid, for although Toothless doesn’t let the lad off without giving him a good scare, he does leave him unharmed. A life for a life.

Toothless growling at Hiccup's knife

Toothless makes his way to a nearby clearing, which in his now flightless state he is forced to stay in. However, it turns out the dragon’s unusual decision to spare Hiccup’s life has piqued the lad’s interest, so Hiccup soon ventures back to see him again. Thus begins an uneasy kind of truce, with Hiccup gradually earning the dragon’s trust until a true friendship emerges between them. At every step of the way, Hiccup respects Toothless’ feelings; he never gets closer than the dragon is comfortable with (much as he is tempted), quickly discards any food or objects Toothless doesn’t like, and most importantly, makes amends for grounding him in the first place by providing him with a fancy prosthetic tailfin, which the two of them learn to use together until Toothless is back to his old speedy self, darting above the shoreline like a regular spitfire.

Toothless looking at Hiccup's drawing

My favourite moment among their bonding scenes is that of the drawing, which is both touching and comedic as we watch Hiccup draw a picture of Toothless in the sand, only for the dragon to then clumsily try his own portrait of Hiccup with a huge tree branch. Once the maestro has finished his masterpiece, Hiccup finds himself encased in a tangle of random lines, but if he accidentally steps on one, Toothless gets upset. Ever respectful, Hiccup carefully picks his way out of the drawing without stepping on any more lines and is rewarded by finally getting to lay his hand on Toothless’ snout. This scene is the centrepiece of the whole film, and I absolutely love it.

Hiccup riding Toothless above the bay

It takes some time, but once Hiccup has won Toothless’ trust, the dragon becomes his most loyal defender, stopping at nothing to keep his new pal safe (it’s no wonder people see elements of their favourite pets in him). When a sceptical Astrid finds and confronts Hiccup, Toothless furiously springs to his friend’s “rescue”, believing him to be under attack. Having gotten off on the wrong foot with Astrid, he then subjects her to a tumultuous whirlwind of a ride that leaves her clinging to Hiccup in terror… but the moment he hears her apologise, he levels out and treats the kids to a wondrous voyage through the twilit sky. Proud and intuitive, Toothless won’t stand for injustice and people must prove themselves to him before he’ll accept them, but once he has, there’s nothing he won’t do for them.

Toothless lead us home devil

Gaining the friendship of Hiccup and Astrid are only the first steps on the road to acceptance for Toothless and the other dragons. First, he convinces the most sensitive and open-minded; then, he wins over someone more stubborn and prejudiced. The final hurdle, however, is seemingly insurmountable: how will Toothless prove to Stoick the Vast that he isn’t the dangerous menace the Viking thinks he is? As it turns out, the clincher comes when he saves Hiccup’s life, which is all the proof Stoick needs to finally admit that he was wrong. The two reach an understanding through their shared love for Hiccup, creating a gateway for the other dragons to find similar acceptance among the Vikings at last.

Toothless revealing Hiccup

Even in this moment, though, I liked that the filmmakers stayed true to Toothless’ character. He may save Hiccup, but he hasn’t forgotten the tailfin his friend cost him, so he gets a little bit of payback by taking one of Hiccup’s feet! Yes, this is what I believe happened; if you look closely at the final moment before the two are swallowed in the fireball, it looks as though Toothless is diving to catch Hiccup by the foot, so this is the most likely explanation. It probably wasn’t deliberate, and just as Hiccup stuck by Toothless and helped him get back into the sky, so too does the dragon stand by the boy, helping him get used to his new foot, further highlighting how much they depend on one another.

Toothless' tail swishing past Hiccup

Much like Hiccup, Toothless is a pretty standard character for stories like this. There are hundreds of variants of the “Boy and his X” tale in which some entity enters a young boy’s life and changes it forever, usually by setting him on the path to maturity. As with Hiccup, though, Toothless is given a great deal of personality and emotion by the filmmakers, with everything from his design to his behaviour carefully crafted to ensure maximum relatability. Toothless may be a Night Fury, but underneath, he’s basically everyone’s beloved dog, cat or horse, and it is Hiccup’s compassion for his misunderstood “pet” which ultimately makes the Viking world a happier place for everyone.

Stoick arriving at dragons' nest

Stoick the Vast, chief of Berk and Hiccup’s dad, is another great example of the importance of execution. Once again, he is a fairly familiar character archetype who on a superficial level is remarkably similar to Buck Cluck (shudder) from Chicken Little. Yet despite that, I don’t hate Stoick the way I did that infernal chicken – in fact, reviewing this film has even made me wonder whether I was a bit harsh with Buck in the first place!

Stoick begins his story as Buck does, alternately frustrated or embarrassed by his nerdy, disaster-prone son, but even in these early moments, there is a distinct difference in the way the fathers are portrayed. Whereas Buck seemed to be concerned mostly with his own social standing, Stoick has genuine concerns and responsibilities over his people because Hiccup’s antics are actually dangerous, threatening lives and causing massive damage. Beneath the bluster, it’s clear that Stoick worries greatly about Hiccup, urging him to stay inside where it’s safe and only losing his temper with him when the lad’s latest crazy invention has destroyed half the village. Stoick also seems to have accepted Hiccup’s smaller physique and has made allowances for it by apprenticing him to Gobber as a weaponsmith, with his most common complaint being about Hiccup’s lack of focus rather than his lack of brawn.

Stoick angry after dragon raid

While Hiccup’s insecurities make him feel like his dad is disappointed about his size, we see that Stoick actually worries the boy won’t be able to survive in such a violent world without proper fighting skills. In this film, at least, Hiccup’s mother is nowhere in sight and Stoick apparently believes her to be dead, so his only child is very precious to him; over and over again, we get numerous small moments where the animators make it clear how Stoick truly feels.

There’s the anxious look he wears after returning from the failed search for the nest, where the villagers are talking about Hiccup in the past tense and poor Stoick thinks his son has been killed. Then there’s the anguished, regretful look after he has disowned Hiccup for seeming to “choose” dragons over Vikings, tragically failing to realise that the two groups can be united. Even the eager way he seizes upon Hiccup’s dragon training as a kind of common ground for conversation shows us how desperate he is to connect with the boy. Stoick is misguided and ignorant, it’s true, but he also cares.

Actually, let’s spend a moment on that last scene. After resisting the idea of putting Hiccup into dragon training out of fear for the boy’s safety, Stoick is finally convinced by Gobber that it may be the best thing for him and agrees to let Hiccup give it a try. Then, after weeks away at sea, Stoick returns to find the village suddenly singing Hiccup’s praises and is delighted to think the training has actually worked, immediately going to the workshop to congratulate him.

Stoick eager to talk

Thematically, this scene matches up with that awkward one from Chicken Little where the titular character and Buck finally bond after the kid manages to win a baseball game, but it’s done so much better here. In Chicken Little, the emotion the scene is shooting for falls flat because Buck’s motivations feel so shallow and fickle; he only likes his son when the kid is popular and the audience knows it. If the poor kid hadn’t won that game, do you think Buck would have still come up and had that nice moment with him, consoling him or cheering him up? As if. Later, Buck even apologises specifically for making Chicken Little feel like his love was something he had to earn.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the scene has much more nuance because of the clashing perspectives of the two characters. The audience is aware of Hiccup’s guilty conscience, so when Stoick sombrely begins by accusing Hiccup of “keeping secrets”, our minds go to the same place Hiccup’s does – he knows about Toothless! Then, Stoick joyfully explains that he’s heard how well Hiccup’s training is going and, after all of their struggles to communicate with each other, Stoick pulls up a chair, sits down, and listens to his son with all his might. It’s exactly what Hiccup has wanted all along, but of course, the tragedy of the moment is that Hiccup can’t talk to his dad about his training, because it would mean revealing all the unusual knowledge he’s gained from hanging out with a dragon in the wild.

As the silence between them lengthens, Stoick breaks it with a gift, presenting Hiccup with a helmet made from half of his missing mother’s breastplate. It’s part of a matching set, the other one of which Stoick wears himself, and while there is a hint of comedy to this part with Stoick’s bashfulness and Hiccup’s slightly creeped out reaction, the underlying sentiment is very touching. It’s Stoick’s way of reaching out to his son, symbolically tying them together as family; it also makes the later scene in which Hiccup throws the helmet aside hit harder and explains why Stoick reacts with such hurt and anger.

Stoick talking to Gobber about Hiccup

It would probably be more prudent to compare Stoick with Elinor rather than Buck, as both of these parental characters fill an antagonistic role without ever being made to feel like the bad guy.

An early discussion between Stoick and Gobber tells us that, like Elinor, Stoick was raised in a very traditionally gendered way, with expectations of “what {he} was, what {he} had to become” foisted on him from the very beginning. The two characters are thus only trying to continue the pattern that they are used to, by raising their children to be as safe and successful as possible within the confines of their respective societies. For Merida, that meant preparing her to be a diplomat and a lady when all she wanted was to run wild and free in the outdoors, while for Hiccup, the opposite is the case; his intelligence and sensitivity has no place in a dangerous Viking world, where being tough is necessary just to get by. (Ironically, the two of them would likely fare much better if they swapped worlds!) Stoick and Elinor just so happen to be parents of innovators who are destined to break the mould with a new way of doing things, and they do both ultimately come around to their children’s new way of thinking.

Stoick I'm proud to call you my son

After Stoick hits his low point with the disowning of Hiccup, the only place left to go for this character is up. It’s at this point that I’d like to make another comparison, to the dynamic between Ariel and her father Triton. Like Stoick, Triton was also filled with prejudice, in his case against humans, and both fathers can ultimately only be shaken from their old beliefs by physical proof of their falsity. For Triton, that happened when the human Eric rescued his beloved daughter, and the same change happens to Stoick when he witnesses the dragon Toothless saving Hiccup – but there is one small difference.

Stoick says I did this

Stoick’s prejudices are shaken just before that climactic moment, when he first sees Hiccup and the other teenagers fly in to fight the Red Death on a team of dragons. Seeing his son in action, using his own skills to help the Vikings and completely in his element at last, is what finally shows Stoick the error of his ways – and to his credit, he admits it, apologising and reaffirming his love for Hiccup. This change of heart is only solidified when he believes his stubbornness has cost him his son, with another great piece of symmetry used to echo Hiccup’s regret over crippling Toothless; as Stoick gazes tearfully at the injured dragon, he unknowingly repeats Hiccup’s words as he laments, “I did this”. After apologising to Toothless, the proud dragon “rewards” him by revealing Hiccup, alive and safely cocooned within his wings, and Stoick finally sees how compassionate and heroic dragons can be.

Stoick thanking ToothlessStoick proud of Hiccup at the end

By the end of the film, Stoick has come full circle. He has learned the importance of communication, and by finally listening to his son’s point of view, he has improved life in Berk for everyone. With the defeat of the Red Death, the true threat to Vikings and dragons alike has been removed, allowing the two sides to coexist and work together. It is the mark of a great leader to admit to one’s own mistakes, and Stoick’s willingness to change solidifies his status as a good chief and, most importantly, a good father.

Astrid figure out which side you're on

Now we come to Astrid Hofferson, a classmate of Hiccup’s from dragon training who is set up as his opposite in many ways. As mentioned above, Astrid is essentially the perfect Viking adolescent; tough and skilful, she is an asset to the community, working with the other teens to put out fires during the dragon raids and diligently preparing herself for the next stage of her career as a warrior. I won’t keep harping on about this as it shouldn’t really be important, but I’ll just note once how refreshing it is that the role of best fighter was given to a girl – in this world, a Viking’s gender doesn’t matter, as long as they can wield an axe.

Astrid in front of burning house

That’s not to say she completely escapes the “trap” of being a female character in a largely male-dominated film; Hiccup, rather predictably, has a crush on her, not that she pays him enough attention to realise this. Just look at the male gaze at work when he introduces us to her! For her part, though, Astrid is much too concerned with her own training to spare a thought for Hiccup, at least until the day he unexpectedly shows up at dragon training class with the others.

Astrid is shown to be far more mature than her classmates and is, to an extent, the only one of them taking the training seriously. She briskly critiques her own performance at the end of each class, has read the dragon manual cover to cover before Gobber even tells them to do so, and consistently outperforms the lot of them with her carefully practiced attacks and manoeuvres. When Hiccup first begins training alongside her, she is deeply insulted by his apparent indifference towards the experience, warning him sternly to “Figure out which side {he’s} on”. Her comments about their parents’ “war” with the dragons emphasise the indoctrinating effects ingrained prejudice can have on the young in society, as she is already fully committed to a fight that she doesn’t even understand the origins of.

Astrid staring at Hiccup in surprise

However, Astrid’s coolness towards Hiccup soon changes when he suddenly starts to improve beyond all expectations. We see her inner competitiveness come to the surface in these scenes as Hiccup begins to one-up her in every class, but unlike the others, she doesn’t blindly accept the change without question. Sharp and observant, Astrid soon notices Hiccup’s habit of slipping away when nobody’s watching and begins trying to track down his hiding place, but it isn’t until Hiccup takes the “honour” of killing her first dragon away from her that she is motivated enough to finally find him.

Astrid sharpening axe atop rock

Once she meets Toothless, there is a tense standoff between the two as Hiccup tries to keep their distrust of one another from boiling over. Astrid is furious at Hiccup for hiding Toothless from everyone and her anger irritates the proud dragon, who is understandably rough with her at first until she calms down. However, once Hiccup has convinced her to give him a chance, Astrid finally sees – as Stoick later will – that there is much more to dragons than she ever imagined.

Astrid riding Toothless with Hiccup

As it happens, on the very night Astrid meets him, Toothless is lured out to the dragons’ nest by the Red Death, where she and Hiccup witness the true cause of the unrest between their people and the dragons. The monstrous brute is hypnotising the other dragons into raiding Berk for its livestock, which they then deliver to its gaping maw like helpless drones; this thing is the reason the dragons have been attacking them all this time, and the proof solidifies Astrid’s newfound respect for the creatures.

Astrid talking to Hiccup before the final exam

By the time of Hiccup’s final exam, Astrid has become a firm supporter of the change he is trying to bring about, and the moment he’s endangered she breaks into the ring to rescue him. After Toothless has been captured and Stoick has disowned him, Astrid is there for Hiccup at his lowest point, and she vindicates his belief in the innate worth of the dragons when he needs to hear it most. One particularly good moment comes when Hiccup wonders why he is the first Viking in three hundred years who wouldn’t kill a dragon, to which she simply responds, “First to ride one, though”. Her perceptiveness helps Hiccup find clarity in the mess of what’s just happened, giving him new conviction for the final fight against the Red Death.

Astrid says go

You have to hand it to Astrid, as she goes through a great deal of character development in a very short space of time. From being one of the most fiercely traditional Vikings of her generation, she quickly opens herself up to the idea that she might have been wrong about dragons the whole time, having the intelligence to see the wisdom of Hiccup’s non-violent approach and even recognising that Hiccup’s sparing of Toothless was an act of compassion, not weakness. After the revelation about the Red Death’s part in the story, Astrid sees that change is possible, and she isn’t afraid to correct her mistaken beliefs to help Hiccup make it a reality.

Astrid kissing Hiccup at the end

It is, perhaps, a tad cliché to have her end up dating Hiccup by the end, but at least the development of their friendship does feel natural. Their connection is born out of a mutual respect for one another; Astrid respects Hiccup for staying true to his beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition, and Hiccup appreciates her trust in his new way of thinking, allowing them to come together and fight for peace. Astrid’s character proves to Hiccup – and the audience – that there is hope for the Vikings, and in a wider sense, that even the most stubborn bigot has the potential to take on a new perspective.

Gobber look for its blind spot

Stoick’s right-hand man, Gobber the Belch, is possibly my favourite character after Hiccup. He’s just so much fun, like a kind of wacky uncle, and he lends his ear to both Hiccup and Stoick whenever the disconnected pair need to vent about each other. Hiccup starts out as his apprentice at Berk’s forge, and Gobber has evidently seen all manner of weird and wonderful contraptions come out of the little Viking’s brain over the years. Having spent so much time with him, this is perhaps why he seems to understand the lad better than Stoick does, and explains why he is able to defend Hiccup’s request to be put in dragon training with the other kids (even if Hiccup later has a change of heart).

Gobber talking to Hiccup

When Stoick expresses doubts about Hiccup’s ability to handle the rigours of training, Gobber wisely points out that since Hiccup is going to get out there anyway, his odds of survival would be increased if he is properly prepared. This seems to do the trick, and Gobber is soon welcoming Hiccup to the ranks at the start of the training cycle, during which the old Viking reveals himself to be quite the expert on their reptilian foes.

Gobber a dragon will always go for the kill

As I mentioned above, these scenes in the middle of the film are fantastic, where we see Gobber’s lessons being tried, tested and deconstructed by Hiccup out in the field with Toothless, one by one. Gobber, for instance, asserts that a dragon will always, always go for the kill, but this prompts Hiccup to wonder why Toothless didn’t when he set him free, thus leading him back out to the woods to investigate. Later, Gobber then explains that one should try to disable a dragon’s wings and tail, because “a downed dragon, is a dead dragon”. This leads Hiccup to realise that Toothless’ tail injury is hindering him, which is why he designs the prosthetic tailfin.

That said, not all of Gobber’s advice is inaccurate. His tips about blind spots and shot limits come in handy in the finale, when Hiccup employs the knowledge to help him and the others fight the Red Death. It’s all about being flexible, taking Gobber’s lessons and applying them to the situation at hand. Indirectly, you could say that Gobber is actually the one responsible for improving his society, as he unwittingly gives Hiccup the tools to approach dragons in a whole new way.

Gobber talking to Stoick on boat

On a personal note, Gobber is also shown to be a good friend to Stoick, standing by him through thick and thin and always giving him the best advice he can. Gobber knows how to get through to the chief when he’s not in the mood to listen to anyone else, and is often the only one who can knock some sense into him. In the final battle, it’s also nice to see him voluntarily stay with Stoick on what looks like a suicide mission, with each of them working to distract the Red Death long enough to let the others escape. Their brief clasping of hands implies a sense of old kinship, making it plain these two have been through a lot together.

By the end of the film, Gobber’s whole world has been turned upside down and everything he thought he knew about dragons has been called into question – but he couldn’t be happier. With Berk’s society now refocusing on mechanical expertise rather than battle, Gobber’s skills look set to become more in demand than ever, and it’s fitting that one of his first tasks in this new world is to design a prosthetic foot for Hiccup, given that he is perhaps the most experienced villager when it comes to prostheses.

Close-up of Fishlegs

For Hiccup’s ragtag band of dragon training classmates, the directors made sure to cash in on the improvisational abilities of their chosen actors – Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller – by bringing them together for group recording sessions whenever they could, a practice more common in the theatre than animation. The four teenagers are basically comic relief for much of the film, although they do play their part in the final battle, too.

Fishlegs Ingerman is the largest and, on the surface at least, the most traditionally Viking-like of the group, but inside he’s actually surprisingly similar to Hiccup. Both boys are rather quiet and nerdy, but the difference is Fishlegs has the bulky physique to “pass” in Viking society better than Hiccup does. Fishlegs is shown to be very invested in the theoretical side of dragon training and has memorised the entire dragon manual, with the result that he spends most classes spewing endless facts and boring the others to tears. Being so bookish, he has trouble putting the knowledge he’s gained into practice, but he flourishes once Hiccup introduces the idea of working with the dragons rather than against them and proves a valuable source of tactical information in the final battle against the Red Death.

Close-up of Snotlout

Snotlout Jorgenson is a parody of traditional masculinity amped up to the max, a total product of his society who reminded me in many ways of Young MacGuffin from Brave. Like that teen, this one also has a massive ego, and he spends most of his time trying to woo his dream girl, Astrid, with absurd promises that she is far too busy to listen to. The interesting thing about Snotlout as a suitor for Astrid is that, unlike Hiccup, he has no integrity, which leaves her with little respect for him. Snotlout will say or do just about anything to get her attention, but he’s just saying what he thinks she wants to hear rather than being himself. Behind the bravado, though, he is shown to be just as scared as the other kids, giving Hiccup a chance to play the mentor as he gently eases Snoutlout into dragon riding.

Close-up of Ruffnut and Tuffnut
Ruffnut on the left, Tuffnut on the right

Then you’ve got the twins, Ruffnut and Tuffnut Thorston, who are given the least to do beyond bickering with each other for comic relief. They essentially represent “the masses”, mocking and teasing Hiccup when the tide is against him, before fawning over him as soon as he begins to get more popular. Incidentally, this is yet another example of a pair of male/female fraternal twins being made almost indistinguishable from one another, rather like Phil and Lil in Rugrats; Ruffnut is perhaps slightly more mature than her brother, but that’s about the best that can be said for her character.

Gothi judging Hiccup

The only other Viking of any significance is Gothi, the voiceless village elder who is responsible for deciding which of the teenagers will have the “honour” of killing their first dragon in front of the whole village. Since she is apparently the oldest resident of Berk, her age and wisdom give her a position of respect among the Vikings, and she seems to recognise the advantages of Hiccup’s more thoughtful, nuanced tactics over the blind force used by the others, leading her to choose him over Astrid. (Although I’m surprised she never caught on to what Hiccup was up to, given how observant she was).

Close-up of Red Death

After Toothless, the most significant dragon plot-wise is definitely the menacing Red Death, an ancient and gargantuan dragon (though not the biggest, as we see in later instalments) which has been secretly manipulating the other dragons into raiding Viking settlements for years. Its island home is known to the Vikings as the dragons’ “nest” and finding it has been their main goal for many years, but none suspect the existence of the foul beast that dwells within.

The Red Death, whose name alone is reminiscent of the Cold War-era Red Menace, can be taken as a metaphor for whatever topical issue you feel best fits the needs of the story; politics, entrenched inequality, colonialism, whatever. The point is that this monster is the one who’s truly responsible for the feud between dragons and Vikings, representing the common evil that the two groups should be uniting against. With its defeat, the way is cleared for a more peaceful coexistence between the dragons and Vikings in the future.

Close-up of Hookfang
Hookfang
Close-up of Barf and Belch, Stormfly and Meatlug
L-r: Barf and Belch, Stormfly and Meatlug

To close this section, I’ll just say a quick word about the other individual dragons we meet, each of which is kept in captivity in Berk for use in the training sessions until Hiccup breaks them out for the final fight. There’s a Gronckle that Fishlegs later uses as a mount in the battle, naming him Meatlug. Ruffnut and Tuffnut, meanwhile, get Barf and Belch, the two distinct heads of a Hideous Zippleback; Ruffnut commands Barf on the left, while Tuffnut has Belch on the right. Snotlout unsurprisingly goes for the biggest and fiercest of the captive dragons, a Monstrous Nightmare which he dubs Hookfang, while Astrid opts for a smarter and speedier mount in the form of Stormfly, a Deadly Nadder.

Terrible Terror at the Giant's Causeway

The group also use a small species called Terrible Terrors in their training, but these don’t accompany them on the ride to the Red Death. Outside of the arena scenes, their only other appearance is when Hiccup and Toothless happen upon some after one of their flights, while they are resting on a coastline that looks a lot like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Toothless makes short work of the little dragons’ attempts to steal food, but they warm up to Hiccup when he kindly offers them a fish of their own and prompt his realisation that “Everything we know about you guys is wrong!”

 

Animation

The supervising animators for How to Train Your Dragon included the likes of Cassidy Curtis, Steven Hornby, Jakob Hjort Jensen, Marek Kochout and Kristof Serrand, with David Torres supervising Hiccup, Gabe Hordos handling Toothless and Fabio Lignini working on Gobber.

The animation team did extensive research to figure out how to correctly depict the dragons’ flight, anticipating that those scenes would be some of the film’s biggest draws, as well as the fire, which would be unlimited by the restrictions of live-action cinema where propane flames are most commonly used. In fact, each dragon species was given its own distinctive type of fire, and you can really see the different textures, densities and patterns if you pay attention – Toothless emits sharp, swift pulses of blueish flame, while the Red Death’s fire is much thicker and more viscous, almost like liquid.

Monstrous Nightmare aflameToothless prepares a flame bedRed Death spews fire into the clouds

It wasn’t only the fire that the animators were concerned with, however. They also worked to ensure their dragon designs were distinctive and appealing enough to distinguish themselves within the wider world of dragon fiction. For the star dragon himself, Toothless, they carefully combined various characteristics of dogs and cats to try and create the perfect blend which any pet-owner would be able to relate to. While he is still fundamentally a dragon, his overall design is very panther-like, featuring large ears and eyes than are typically used on dragons in order to convey his emotions more clearly. The panther angle was inspired by a DreamWorks employee’s screensaver; before that, the plan was to make him more canine, like a reptilian wolf.

Toothless tries to smile

This film was the directors’ follow-up to Lilo & Stitch, and as such was their first foray into full computer animation (the earlier film had only used CG sparingly in a handful of scenes). It must have been a daunting challenge to get used to such a technical new system of animating; the dragons alone required around 4,000 individual controls to move them, half of which were in their faces to help capture the subtle expressions required.

Hiccup touches Toothless #2

Among animation anecdotes for the film, one of the best known is that of the famous “first touch” scene, in which Toothless briefly hesitates before pressing his snout against Hiccup’s outstretched hand. Apparently, that hesitation was an error in the animation, but it worked so well for the scene that the artists chose to leave it as it was. Meanwhile, Toothless’ hilariously awkward attempt at copying Hiccup’s smile was inspired by one of the animators’ infant sons doing the same – how cute!

Looking back at How to Train Your Dragon ten years on, the animation has for the most part held up quite well, although it still pales in comparison to the work on display in last year’s final instalment. It undoubtedly helped that the focal creatures were scaly rather than furry or feathery, as such features were notoriously difficult to render in earlier CG films. On that note, it’s no surprise that the worst-looking element from today’s perspective is the hair, particularly Astrid’s – when you compare her stiff, bulky braid in this film to the softer, flowing one she wears in the last film, it’s no contest. That aside, I will forever be impressed by the variety of different fire types on offer in this film; it was such a creative way of distinguishing the different species from one another and makes them feel more like real creatures.

 

Plot

From what I can gather, the original version of the story was closely following the novel, with writer Will Davies working on it following his time on Flushed Away (2006). While this early treatment was described as “heavily loyal to the book”, it was also considered to be too “sweet” and “whimsical” and was geared towards an overly young demographic, according to Hiccup’s actor Jay Baruchel. Once the directorial team of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois came on board, they worked with Davies to alter the screenplay into the more nuanced, allegorical story we know today. They seem to have drawn inspiration from their previous project, which is fine with me; after all, they found success with their last tale about a young outcast befriending a hated creature.

Hiccup facing the Monstrous Nightmare

I’ve already talked a little above about how skilfully the writers injected new life into a set of standard plot beats. We’ve all seen stories about a boy and his dog, bird, or Pokémon before, not to mention stories about “masculine” fathers struggling to accept their sons’ more “feminine” pursuits and forbidden friendships or romances between two members of opposing sides, but the characters here are given enough depth to keep things feeling fresh. I especially liked the way they used animals in the conflict to mirror prejudice in the real world, something many other excellent animated films have done before and since to make the topic more palatable for a younger audience without the risk of offending anybody. In the words of Bonnie Arnold, “It was a simple story well told and that’s the key to its appeal, whether you are six or sixty”.

Hiccup says I did thisStoick says I did this

One of the best things about the writing is the symmetry in the dialogue, which is used to help viewers draw connections between various “pairs” of emotional beats throughout the film. This is a fun technique that shows off the development each of the characters go through, with each version of a line being given new weight in different contexts.

For instance, Hiccup’s “This is Berk” narration at the opening is rather gloomy and downbeat, with the dragons described as “downsides” and “pests” – by the end, this has of course been flipped, and a perkier Hiccup now describes them as “upsides” and “pets”. Then, there are the numerous times the older Vikings dismiss Hiccup with an angry, “No more of… this”, at which point he protests that they “just gestured to all of {him}”. In the final scene, Stoick repeats the gesture with warmth and pride, acknowledging the good Hiccup has done for his community: “Turns out all we needed was a little more of… this”. We also have Astrid’s “That’s for everything else” line, which always gets a laugh from me – the first time, that is an axe handle to Hiccup’s stomach because she’s angry with him for keeping secrets, but the second time, it’s a shy peck on the cheek, thanks to her newfound respect and affection for him. And then of course there’s Hiccup and Stoick’s iconic “I did this”, which both utter in regret as they look over an injured Toothless.

There are lots of examples of this scattered across the film, but my favourite is “Why didn’t you?”, a question first asked by Hiccup as he wonders to himself why Toothless didn’t slaughter him, despite being told that dragons always go for the kill. It’s a poignant moment, as it marks Hiccup’s first questioning of the societal norms he’s used to and sets him off on the path to change. Later, Astrid then asks him the same question, this time wondering why Hiccup didn’t kill Toothless; his response is important to her, because it’s the basis for a massive shift in the way she and the other Vikings are going to view dragons from then on. The answer to the question in both cases is the film’s core message – that all lives are equal.

Hiccup's prosthetic foot

In addition to the good message, this film also has its characters suffer lasting, irreversible consequences for their decisions, the dramatic effect of which should not be underestimated. Hiccup risks his relationship with his father and his place in society by helping Toothless, but by far the most memorable example of the film’s commitment to realism is that shot, close to the end, of Hiccup discovering that he has lost a foot in the fight with the Red Death and must now wear a prosthetic. Seriously, how often do the protagonists of family films lose something so important and not magically get it back? I remember being shocked and delighted by the scene when I first saw this nearly a decade ago, but its inclusion was a close call.

Originally, the plan was to go with a more traditional “happy ending” in which Hiccup survives the battle unscathed, but the directors didn’t feel this was believable. They wanted to emphasise the sacrifices Hiccup has made to get to this point, and in a society where people like Gobber were already sporting numerous prostheses, it made sense for the characters to be used to it. It’s almost presented as a kind of right of passage, with Hiccup quickly accepting the new situation and even planning to make “a few tweaks” to his new prosthetic to individualise it. The decision to have Hiccup lose a foot specifically was also made to further parallel his similarities to Toothless, who is in a similar situation with his missing tailfin.

Toothless' prosthetic tailfin

If there were any concerns about how parents would react to this bold move, they were quickly settled during the film’s test screenings. Apparently, many of the parents in attendance came up to the producers of their own accord to commend them for that particular choice, even asking them to keep it in the final cut. Heck, even the author of the original novel, Cressida Cowell, praised the directors for this ending and considered it true to the spirit of her work. Interestingly, none other than Steven Spielberg also had some input with regards to this final scene; he was dissatisfied with the way Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship had been reduced to that of a “mere cowboy and his horse” by the final act, so he suggested including the dragon in the last scene to reinforce the idea of their inseparability.

 

Cinematography

Among the many aspects of the production that fans praise, the cinematography also deservedly ranks pretty highly. The art director, Pierre-Olivier Vincent, was joined by visual consultant and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had long been known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers by that time and had just recently started to explore the world of animation over at Pixar. Deakins was brought in to try and give the film a “live-action feel”, with the directors keen to get his help with the lighting in particular; I love it when animation directors approach the medium with this kind of seriousness, and the results speak for themselves. How to Train Your Dragon is immersive, detailed and frankly gorgeous to behold.

How to Train Your Dragon scenery #1How to Train Your Dragon scenery #2How to Train Your Dragon scenery #3How to Train Your Dragon scenery #4How to Train Your Dragon scenery #5How to Train Your Dragon scenery #6How to Train Your Dragon scenery #7How to Train Your Dragon scenery #8How to Train Your Dragon scenery #9How to Train Your Dragon scenery #10How to Train Your Dragon scenery #11How to Train Your Dragon scenery #12How to Train Your Dragon scenery #13How to Train Your Dragon scenery #14How to Train Your Dragon scenery #15How to Train Your Dragon scenery #16How to Train Your Dragon scenery #17How to Train Your Dragon scenery #18How to Train Your Dragon scenery #19

According to Vincent, “For locations, we had to keep in mind that the real element of fantasy in the story is the dragons, so we established a believable, naturalistic environment to set them off”. Production designer Kathy Altieri expanded on this, saying, “The environments in the film portrayed the dynamic eruptions of a volcanic land, characteristic to the northern European geography, but stylised to give them a unique flair. The buildings were designed as if they’d been constructed with machismo, an axe, and some logs”.

Director DeBlois also talked more broadly about the film’s aesthetics, saying, “One of the fun things about Dragon was that it had a very unique visual scheme. We followed this design philosophy that was about making Hiccup feel very small in his world, so everything is depicted as larger than life… I loved the fact that adding this beautiful sense of believable lighting and texture to the caricatured characters and environments forced the movie to exist in the middle zone between animation and live action. This is a very interesting area that is also occupied by James Cameron’s Avatar”. (I understand the comparison given that Cameron’s film was one of their contemporary competitors, but I don’t consider Avatar an animated film at all, personally).

How to Train Your Dragon is an undeniably pretty film, with the landscapes of Berk and the surrounding bay often taking your breath away. You can smell the rain in the air, feel the mud between your toes… and this is only the first film!

Hiccup tracking ToothlessToothless' eyes open

Among my favourite scenes are the one where Hiccup first meets and frees Toothless; it reminds me a little of a scene from The Iron Giant where Hogarth nervously makes his way through the woods, following a trail of destruction until he finds the Giant (I bet the directors were inspired by that). The pacing and staging of this whole part is fantastic, with one of the best shots being that slow pan across Toothless after Hiccup realises the dragon is still breathing. At first, his eyes are closed, but as the camera slowly creeps past his wing, they’re suddenly open and locked on Hiccup – it’s very unsettling.

Hiccup reading the dragon manual

The dragon manual scene is also a highlight, starting off slow and sombre as Hiccup quietly reads about the various species, but building rapidly in intensity as the nightmarish descriptions begin to freak him out. It culminates with him finding the Night Fury’s entry, which is so vague that the author has lapsed into hyperbole: “The unholy offspring of lightning and death itself. Never engage this dragon. Your only chance? Hide and pray it does not find you”. Puzzled, Hiccup puts his own sketch of Toothless down atop the book’s blank page, symbolically disproving his society’s prejudices with the evidence of his own experience.

 

Soundtrack

To create the music for Dragon, regular DreamWorks composer John Powell was hired once again, making this his sixth collaboration with the studio following his most recent work on Kung Fu Panda (which had been a joint effort with Hans Zimmer). Actually, all of Powell’s previous scores for the studio had been done with another composer, so this would be his first time scoring a DreamWorks film by himself – and boy, did he deliver. Zimmer had been singing Powell’s praises for a while at this point and even suggested that he considered Powell to be the superior composer, so he was firmly in support of Powell being given a solo gig.

Hiccup and Toothless practice flying

As we saw with Patrick Doyle in Brave, Powell, too, chose to incorporate lots of Celtic influences, including instruments like the fiddle, bagpipes, dulcimers, pennywhistles and even a harpsichord. Overall, he was aiming for a bombastic, cinematic type of score filled with grand brass, loud percussion and soothing strings, saying, “I was certainly trying to get a bit more epic. I just felt the animation and the visuals were giving me a broader palette to play with. As a kid I remember watching The Vikings {1958} with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, and I always liked that score…

“{The directors} were really very specific a lot of the time. They did want size and depth and emotion. They wanted a feeling of the Nordic musical past. You could say the symphonic musical past was Nielson, the Danish symphonist. Sibelius. Grieg to a certain extent, although I think he was a little bit more Germanic than he was Nordic.

“Sibelius was the key. I studied a lot of Sibelius as a kid, and I’ve always adored his music. So that, plus it was great to have Jónsi do a song at the end of the movie, because I’ve always liked {moody Icelandic band} Sigur Rós. They were an influence as well, even though that seems paradoxical. But there is that in a few cues – heavy, dark guitar textures going on at the same time as large orchestration.

“We looked at all the folk music from the Nordic areas. And I’m part Scottish and grew up with a lot of Scottish folk music, so that came into it a lot. And Celtic music was something that Jeffrey {Katzenberg} felt had this very attractive quality to it, and a sweetness, that he thought would be wonderful for the film.”

Red Death takes flight

Powell’s hard work paid off with both a BAFTA nomination and his first (and so far, only) Oscar nomination for Best Original Music/Score, but sadly he lost both, the former to Alexandre Desplat for The King’s Speech (we’ll be coming back to Desplat next time), and the latter to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their work on The Social Network. Despite this, Powell’s music was wildly praised by critics and fans alike, with many considering it one of the best film scores of the year to this day.

Personally, I love it too, even if it’s not necessarily in my top ten; the opening horns over the DreamWorks logo always give me nostalgic chills and I can’t get enough of the ominous Latin-sounding parts during the Red Death’s scenes. Powell also uses leitmotifs for the characters and interweaves them throughout the score in key moments of development, something I’ve always enjoyed in film scores.

How to Train Your Dragon credits image

The art of the credits sequence was done in the style of the dragon manual and is accompanied by the song Sticks & Stones by Icelandic singer Jónsi from the band Sigur Rós. Featuring multilingual lyrics in both English and Icelandic, not to mention some terrific drum work, Sticks & Stones has a dreamy, upbeat kind of vibe to it, with Jónsi’s airy vocals making you feel like you’re soaring through the clouds alongside Hiccup and Toothless. It’s the perfect note to end the story on.

 

Final Verdict

I was surprised to learn that there was quite a kerfuffle surrounding Dragon’s release date. Originally planned to come out in November of 2009, it ended up being pushed back to avoid competition with the crowded slate of family films that year. Then, a month before its actual release, Jeffrey Katzenberg (yep, here we go) got mad at Warner Bros. for deciding to convert Clash of the Titans into 3D and releasing it only a week after Dragon. Actually, that does seem like a shameless ploy to steal DreamWorks’ business – I think I’m with Katzenberg, for once. 3D was enjoying another boom in popularity at the time though, so this last-minute conversion stuff was happening throughout the industry; Entertainment reporter Kim Masters described the 3D release schedule around March 2010 as a “traffic jam” and felt that the lack of availability of 3D screens might hurt Dragon’s prospects, despite Katzenberg championing the format.

A further development came that March, as theatre industry executives accused Paramount (who were distributing Dragon for DreamWorks) of using high-pressure tactics to essentially bully theatres into screening Dragon instead of other competing 3D releases, such as Clash of the Titans and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. At the time, theatre multiplexes often had just one screen suitable for 3D, so they couldn’t accommodate more than one 3D feature at a time. If this is true, then shame on Paramount for sinking to that level; perhaps it would have been better to simply forego the 3D altogether, but I suspect I’m underestimating the format’s potential to boost ticket sales, especially in 2010.

Anyway, once the film finally did make it into theatres, audiences embraced it with great enthusiasm and quickly made it one of the studio’s biggest hits. That solid position has only been strengthened in the intervening decade as the franchise has expanded, with two more successful films and a slew of games, TV shows and spin-offs besides. One fun fact that tickled me during research was that apparently, the film’s popularity led to a rise in the adoption of black cats from animal shelters, many of which were then named “Toothless” – aww!

Print
The search function in the editor wouldn’t let me find this, so I spent over an HOUR scrolling back through my sticky media library to the post it was originally included in to get it! I’ve lost my mind…

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Most critics did enjoy the film, but there were some dissenters, including – to my surprise – Roger Ebert, who was usually a champion of animated films. He gave this one a strangely catty review, although he did also rate it three stars out of four; perhaps he was just having a bad day when he saw it. He wasn’t alone in criticising it, as several other prominent critics considered the film’s characters and writing to be “juvenile”, with some making comparisons – both good and bad – to Avatar, which by then had already taken the title of highest-grossing film ever. Still, on the plus side, most critics did recognise the inventiveness of the cinematography and had plenty of nice things to say about the high quality of the animation, so at least the visuals managed to win just about everybody over. I just wish the story could have gotten the recognition it deserved!

The film did go on to scoop two Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, but as I mentioned in the last section, the music award was lost to The Social Network, while Best Animated Feature went to Toy Story 3 (which is indeed a great film in its own right, but I can’t make up my mind which I prefer). However, Dragon did extremely well at the Annie Awards, where it won an impressive ten awards including Best Animated Feature, becoming the fifth film to do so (Inside Out has since become the sixth, while only Coco has ever managed to get eleven).

How to Train Your Dragon arrived on DVD and Blu-ray at the end of 2010, but shortly thereafter the film’s distribution rights got tangled in a bit of a corporate muddle. Bizarrely, each of the three Dragon films were distributed by a different studio, as DreamWorks was having a bit of a tough time in the early 2010s and passed their film rights around a lot. After purchasing the rights to the first Dragon film from Paramount in 2014, they then briefly transferred them to 20th Century Fox (who distributed the second film), before they reverted to Universal (who distributed the final one) in 2018, just in time for the conclusion of the trilogy. As a result, 2019 saw the release of all three to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, making them the first DreamWorks Animation titles to be released in that format.

Now, speaking of the sequels, you may be wondering whether I’m going to be reviewing those too. The answer, for now at least, is no – while I have seen both of the other films and quite liked them, I’ve never had the same kind of deep appreciation for them as I do the first one. They’re fine, don’t get me wrong, but compared to the original I just find them rather average; that said, I’ve only seen them once each, so they might grow on me if I give them more of a chance.

The second one was memorable mainly for what it did with Hiccup’s family, which I won’t spoil here in case you’ve not seen it, so at least it maintained the high stakes of its predecessor, even if the story wasn’t as compelling (to me, at least). As for Hidden World, you can find my first thoughts on that here, but basically, I found it to be on about the same level as the second – ordinary, competent but not the kind of modern classic the first one was. Did Toothless really need a distaff counterpart, just for the sake of upholding heteronormativity? I may come back to them down the line, but I’m not promising anything, and it’ll be a long time before I’ve worked through my other priority reviews.

 

That brings me nicely to my conclusion, which is once again a bit of an apology. I really wish I hadn’t promised this for a specific date, because I know by now (and I’m sure you do, too) that I never meet the schedules I set for myself. In hindsight, it was probably a bit silly of me to expect to complete an entire film review just days after my grandmother’s funeral – I need to give myself a break sometimes! There’s just so much on my review list that I can never seem to slow down voluntarily, but then my procrastination demon steps in and does it for me. Guys, I am so sorry that I haven’t posted in nearly a month – again – and I really will try to get to Rise of the Guardians sooner, but I won’t make any promises about the date this time just to avoid any disappointment.

Before Guardians, we’ll be continuing with the First Thoughts series as we look at the 1973 art film Fantastic Planet, after which we’ll be moving on to Allegro Non Troppo. After Guardians, I will be covering Frozen II and Your Name, and then I’ve slightly rearranged the schedule to bring Isao Takahata’s films forward, starting with Only Yesterday. Until next time, which will be sooner rather than later, take care and staaay animated!

My Rating – 4/5

Toothless stank face
I had to include this face somewhere

 

 

References
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
The Art of DreamWorks Animation (2014) by Ramin Zahed
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29689926 – credit for poster
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23732044 – credit for Avatar poster
https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/how-to-train-your-dragon-2010 – Roger Ebert’s review
https://ew.com/article/2014/06/15/how-to-train-your-dragon-2-gobber-gay/ – an article about Gobber’s sexuality
https://www.fantasy-animation.org/current-posts/2019/3/7/notes-from-an-angry-queer-compulsive-heteronormativity-in-how-to-train-your-dragon-the-hidden-world-2019 – a piece discussing queer readings of the franchise as a whole
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Train_Your_Dragon_(film) – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0892769/ – IMDB profile

8 Replies to “Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)”

  1. I always feel bad because so many people just love this movie and I am more on the “it’s okay” page. There is a lot in it to love, but a huge chunk of the story is a too predictable and I just can’t get behind the notion that one just has to kill one big dragon to end a war. Not to mention that it kind of undercuts the message of the movie if the solution after all the talk about the need to not use violence immediately is more violence, just towards another dragon.

    Plus, at least I wouldn’t be thankful to the guy who is responsible for a crippling injury I have in the first place.

    There are just small elements in this which just don’t yell with me. For me, it is always first and foremost about the story of the character, and this is just missing the extra dose of creativity I need to truly love a movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally get that, it is a very common story and there are some strangely mixed messages at times. Personally, I think I love it because I relate to Hiccup, but then I’ve never had a cat/dog, so Toothless doesn’t move me the way he does some people.

      The Red Death’s existence is certainly problematic, as it implies an easy solution to a complex problem, as you say. That was why I read him as representing the kind of wider institutions that cause prejudice in the real world; since he is driving the conflict between dragons and Vikings, he could perhaps be taken as a stand-in for political corruption, or historical injustices, or something like that. Solving prejudice is of course not as simple as just removing one obstacle, but since real world prejudice still hasn’t got a viable solution, I suppose the writers had to think of something to solve their story’s.

      And yeah, I see your point about Toothless befriending the kid who made him reliant on him forever after! Bit messed up haha.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s