My 2 Cents on How to Train Your Dragon
Many things have happened these first few months of the year 2020—and by “things,” I mean this blasted COVID-19 pandemic. We’re dealing with an extremely infectious virus that the White House predicts will kill 240,000 people, blockheads who are partying on the beach and completely disregarding the importance of personal space, the hoarding of toilet paper, the appalling incompetency and narcissism of our president, the scant supplies of ventilators and hospital masks, and the spike in popularity of outrageously trashy reality TV like The Tiger King and Love Is Blind. Oh yes, and people are beginning to truly appreciate the value of grocery store clerks, postal workers, truck drivers, and other similar jobs that keep our world running. Fortunately the tenth anniversary of DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon recently passed us by, on March 26, so it gives me an opportunity to write about one of my favorite animated movies to make the day a little brighter (watching Chris Mann’s viral musical parodies helps with that too).
WARNING: This will be much more of a breakdown rather than a simple review, meaning there will be SPOILERY analyses of the movie. I would shake my head in dismay if you haven’t watched it in the decade since it released, but then again I waited almost that long to watch Inception, so . . .
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, HTYD is based on Cressida Cowell’s children book series, bringing to life the island of Berk where Vikings have to protect their home and their livestock from a variety of dragons. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) is your typical underdog protagonist, a young misfit who wants desperately to join his tribe in fighting the reptilian beasts. During a dragon attack, he succeeds at taking down a Night Fury—“the unholy offspring of lightning and death itself,” and the most feared of all the dragon breeds for its ability to camouflage itself in the night sky and its knack for pinpoint accuracy with its fire breaths. And so begins a journey that will engender an unprecedented companionship between these so-called foes.
The primary reason why I love HTYDis because this bond serves as its heart and soul, infusing the story with enough charm, emotion, and humor to help it rise above its platitudinous messages. It’s similar to the DreamWorks Animation franchise, Kung Fu Panda, which also took the overused misfit-hero-realizes-destiny plot and somehow managed to turn it into yet another one of my favorite animated movies. It doesn’t hurt that the rich animation still holds up after ten years, especially in regard to the breathtaking scenes where dragons soar, swoop, and plunge through the sky. Let’s give our thanks to Roger Deakins, who worked on the movie as a visual consultant and is well-known for his renowned cinematography on films like No Country for Old Men and 1917.
The dragons are a sight to behold, and the creature design imbues each breed with individual mannerisms. The two-headed Hideous Zippleback give off a serpentine air, the Deadly Nadder is a cross between a bird and a Velociraptor, the Gronckle reminds me of a pitbull and a bumblebee, the Monstrous Nightmare is the archetypal Western dragon, and Toothless, the jet-black Night Fury whom Hiccup befriends, resembles a cat with a few doglike behaviors thrown in for kicks (apparently the Night Fury design was inspired by a black panther screensaver that a story artist had on their computer monitor). The animation crew dedicated a great amount of time and effort on the subtle detail in their looks and the lighting that gleams off their scales. It’s even more of a pleasure to let yourself get immersed in the flying scenes, which are a pure and dynamic delight, and are reminiscent of the flying sequences in James Cameron’s Avatar.
As I said before, the heartfelt development between Hiccup and Toothless is the foundation of HTYD. Their arc builds up well from start to finish—Hiccup hitting Toothless out of the sky with his homemade catapult, tracking him down with the intention of killing him but then letting him go, visiting the cove where Toothless is residing because his injured tail renders him unable to fly, fashioning a prosthetic fin and engaging in flight training with him, the two of them partnering together in the climax to defeat the gigantic Red Death, and finally their relationship coming around full circle with Hiccup getting his own prosthetic leg. Toothless manages to be adorable without overwhelming us with emotional terrorism, and his impish tendencies lend to the playful, almost brotherly chemistry between him and Hiccup.
I have to point out a shot in the scene where Hiccup treks through the forest in search of Toothless after having shot him down with a bola the previous night. Upon Hiccup encountering the ensnared dragon, there’s a moment where the camera pans left along Toothless in such a way so his wing projects into the foreground. The wing passes over his eye, which is closed initially, but as the camera keeps panning left and the wing moves out of the way, his eye is open all of a sudden. It’s admittedly a very minor detail, but I love the eeriness of this shot, being somewhat of an animation nerd.
If there’s a single scene that ultimately encapsulates HTYD, it’s the one where Hiccup visits Toothless’s cove a half hour into the movie. It starts out with Hiccup feeding a fish to Toothless and then being forced to take a bite from the head after Toothless regurgitates it in his lap. Then Hiccup tries to reach his hand out to Toothless, but it’s too soon for that—Toothless rejects the gesture and flies off to the other side of the cove. But as time passes and Toothless comes back over to watch Hiccup sketch him in the dirt, he decides to reciprocate by making his own drawing, albeit a very abstract one, of Hiccup. Then Hiccup starts to hold out his hand again, to which Toothless is still opposed until Hiccup looks away. I appreciate that tiny moment of hesitation Toothless has before leaning into Hiccup’s palm. This is the point when they reach a breakthrough in their budding friendship, when they genuinely connect for the first time. For the most part this scene is absent of dialogue and relies on the stunning animation and John Powell’s thoughtful and tender score to complement the tone—a technique often seen in examples like Pixar’s WALL-E or the Pixar Shorts.
Let’s kick off the casting side of this discussion with Baruchel, because he was a very interesting choice for this leading role. It made sense back in 2010 when he was having a bit of a Baruchaissance; the Disney fantasy The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the romcom She’s Out of My League, and the apocalypse comedy This is the End were all released in that general time period. The first two flopped, and while the third movie could be considered a commercial/critical success, it was only a moderate one at that. This trend is reflected in the rest of his non-HTYD work, so it’s appropriate to say that—unless he makes some sort of Keanu Reeves-esque comeback and blows us out of the water with a fantastic comedy or veers in a dramatic direction à la Adam Sandler/Uncut Gems—the HTYD franchise will be remembered in the coming decades as the peak of his career. And that’s not a bad thing at all, because he is undeniably perfect as Hiccup. I don’t think Baruchel is hilarious, but he can hold a charming enough of an onscreen presence. As a vocal presence, he does a splendid job at infusing his performance with an endearing geekiness that translates well for both the wisecracks and the emotional beats.
The supporting characters are well-cast, too: Gerard Butler as Stoick the Vast (AKA Leonidas reincarnated as a Viking), Hiccup’s macho father and the chief of the tribe; America Ferrera as Astrid, Hiccup’s fiery romantic interest; Craig Ferguson as Gobber the Belch, Hiccup’s mentor; and a band of Viking adolescents played by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, and T.J. Miller.
The relationship between Hiccup and Stoick consists of some typical father-son tropes and isn’t as fleshed-out as that between Hiccup and Toothless, but their interplay is still pretty satisfying and provides two of my favorite gags. One is in the scene where Stoick tells his son that he needs to train to fight dragons, but Hiccup, who attempted to kill Toothless but let him go instead, says, “We have a surplus of dragon-fighting Vikings, but do we have enough bread-making Vikings or small-home-repair Vikings?” The other gag is when Stoick gives Hiccup a Viking helmet and tells him his mother would have wanted him to have that, and “it was half of her breastplate.” Then Stoick gestures to his own helmet and adds, “Matching set.” I still think it’s funny, but I’ll admit, I have never been able to get over the fact that Hiccup’s helmet is huge compared to Stoick’s tiny helmet, yet they’re supposed to be a matching set . . . ?
Out of all the supporting characters, Astrid is my favorite. Not only is she an enjoyable foil for Hiccup’s character, but she’s the most determined out of all the kids to come out on top in dragon training and she embodies her tribe’s long-held beliefs about the malevolence of dragons; that makes it a point of significant growth for her arc when Hiccup, even after a chaotic dragonback ride on Toothless, is able to convince her of the companionable nature of which dragons are capable. And it expands to a wider scope, because if Astrid is able to change her perspective and accept dragons, it shows that the rest of the tribe can follow suit.
We know Gobber as Hiccup’s mentor with the crotchety sarcasm and the hammer, ax, tankard, and other items he can affix to his prosthetic left arm. However, it’s also worth noting that he’s gay—that is, in the HTYD canon. His homosexuality was supposed to be implied through an ad-lib that Ferguson did for HTYD 2, although I didn’t catch it on my first watch. If you’ve read my thoughts on RWBY: Volume 7 and how that poorly handled LGBTQ rep, you’ll know I’m tired of implicit queerness in animation. Maybe that’s why I’m more irritated than usual with Gobber being canon-gay. And it’s not due to homophobia, because DeBlois is gay and he directed all three movies, so I just find it a little puzzling. At least Pixar took a progressive step forward with the police officer who mentioned her girlfriend in Onward. Trivia fact (and spoiler for HTYD 2): an early draft of the script had a mind-controlled Toothless kill Gobber instead of Stoick, but Guillermo Del Toro persuaded DeBlois to swap out the characters.
Going back to Kung Fu Panda, it’s always bugged me how extraneous the Furious Five felt as supporting characters. Maybe it’s because the humongous comedic energy of Po/Jack Black takes up the screen the majority of the time, as it should, but I also think it’s due to the fact that the Furious Five simply aren’t that funny. This contrasts with the crowd of Viking kids, who have more comic relief to work with despite their roles being about the same size as that of the Furious Five. I particularly enjoy it when they all join in with Hiccup in the climax and claim a dragon befitting to each of their personalities—a Nadder for Astrid, a Monstrous Nightmare for Snotlout, a Gronckle for Fishlegs, and a Zippleback for twin siblings Ruffnut and Tuffnut.
The movie is quite action-packed, not only with the flying segments but also with the dragon fights, starting with the attack in the opening scene, building up through the Viking kids’ dragon training, and culminating with our heroes being pitted against the Red Death at the dragon nest. The fight is an especially fun way to see Hiccup and Toothless outsmart their opponent, and a good example of why Night Furies have always been the most dreaded dragon species. Of course, there are a few questions that keep nagging at me. How could a dragon as colossal as the Red Death realistically take flight? How long has it been controlling the other dragons as their alpha? Is it really possible that it was able to sustain itself on the minuscule livestock brought by its dragons?
Then the movie concludes with Vikings and dragons living together on Berk as a unified society, Hiccup and Toothless flying off toward the sun, and the credits rolling with artistic dragon sketches by Nico Marlet, head of HTYD’s character design, and the infectiously breezy track “Sticks & Stones” by Icelandic singer-songwriter Jónsi. At that point ten years ago, I knew HTYD was a tour de force of an animated movie. Its legacy has only been bolstered thanks to the equally enthralling sequels, which is why I would recommend binging the trilogy to lift your spirits.
Windup score: 96/100