Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
How to Train Your Dragon (directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders) sounds like the title of a satirical instruction manual in a Game of Thrones parody. In fact, this underdog hit from DreamWorks Animation – released the same year as Disney/Pixar behemoths Toy Story 3, Tangled, and Despicable Me – does provide an instruction manual of sorts: it is a lesson on how to make a near-perfect film. How to Train Your Dragon may not have the glitz and glamor of the billion dollar franchise that revolutionized the animation industry or the gravitas of a centuries-old folk story, but its smart, engaging charm and genuine pathos propel it to true greatness.
Everyone buys into this bloodthirsty, aggressive way of life – all except the chief’s son Hiccup, a skinny kid with the perfectly cast, tremulous voice of Jay Baruchel, who’d rather use metal tools to tinker in the shop than to bash in skulls. He looks out of place, sounds out of place, feels out of place, and everyone, including his disappointed father, constantly tells him he’s out of place.
Thus, the storytelling genius of How to Train Your Dragon: we get all of this in the opening two minutes of the movie, through Hiccup’s wry voice-over narration. This brilliant, funny, soaring opening – buoyed by John Powell’s gorgeously inspired theme music – builds an entire world and introduces a merry cast of characters all before you can grab your first fistful of popcorn (much like Mean Girls, another cinematic classic. No, I’m not kidding), giving the rest of the movie room to breathe and develop its humor and heart. It also sets up the central conflict of the film: should Hiccup toughen up, becoming the pugilistic Viking his father wants him to be, or be true to himself?
How to Train Your Dragon avoids the potentially trite application of the “be true to yourself” theme by turning it into a running joke, with the final application of the joke flipping the snark on its head and becoming something much more sincere. When mentor figures like Stoick and Gobber (voiced by Scotsman extraordinaire Craig Ferguson) try to get Hiccup to conform to the Viking stereotype by bluntly informing him that he needs to “stop…all of this,” Hiccup’s response is pure exasperation. (“You just gestured to all of me.”) But when he repeats these words at the end of the film, his tone has changed to one of appreciation and his father’s attitude has changed to one of acceptance. The shift reflects a poignant emotional truth without the need for an elaborate, over-the-top speech. This sense of narrative framing is also evident in the film’s final scene, a voiceover summation nearly identical to Hiccup’s opening narration – but with a few key tweaks (and a more rousing, triumphant rendition of the musical score) to demonstrate the changed status quo.
Of course, the middle hour of the film has to properly build tension and precipitate character development so that the ending will feel emotionally earned – and How to Train Your Dragon certainly delivers on that front. During the opening dragon attack, Hiccup is convinced he hit the most fearsome dragon of all – a Night Fury – with a contraption he built, and he treks off into the lushly animated forest to investigate. But when faced with the vulnerable, tied-up Night Fury, Hiccup finds that he can’t – or won’t – kill the dragon after all. His victory (“I did it!”) becomes his shame (“I did this…”), and he decides to let the dragon go free. (Hiccup’s father, Stoick, utters a similarly defeated “I did this…” when he believes Hiccup to be dead later in the movie. More genius callbacks!) But the dragon lost its left tail fin in the attack, and cannot get very far on its own. So Hiccup keeps coming back to visit…
…while he and his agemates endure regular dragon killing training classes, delivered by their laissez-faire instructor, Gobber. These lessons mostly provide comic relief, since Hiccup’s frenemies are hilariously dysfunctional and are voiced by the likes of T. J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill. (America Ferrera plays Hiccup’s badass, no-nonsense love interest, Astrid.) But these lessons are brilliantly intercut with Hiccup’s own lessons, as he learns to befriend rather than kill a dragon. After Gobber says that a dragon will “always – always! – go for the kill,” Hiccup looks at his new buddy, Toothless, and wonders, “…so why didn’t you?” Later, after Hiccup’s secret is exposed and a furious Stoick leads an invading army to the dragons’ nest, Hiccup laments that he should have killed his dragon when he had the chance and avoided this whole mess. Astrid then throws the sentiment back at him. “So why didn’t you?”
Not content to tie things up with a simple but effective “dragons are friends, not stealing your food” argument, How to Train Your Dragon also examines the human tendency to fear what we don’t understand. Though Gobber’s book on dragons labels each one “extremely dangerous” and advises villagers to “kill on sight,” Hiccup comes to realize that his instinct was right all along: killing is not the only way – or even the correct one, and that the humans and the dragons have more in common than they might think. He learns that his “cowardice” and “weakness” actually demonstrate a unique kind of moral strength.
Even without these complex (and important – this a kids’ movie, after all) themes and lessons, there is a ton of lighthearted fun to be had with the film’s swooping, alluring visuals and hyperbolically warrior-like character designs. After dropping his intimidation act, Toothless takes on many of the characteristics of a lovable, loyal dog, and his many quirks are animated seamlessly. And as mentioned before, John Powell’s score is truly magical, infusing each scene with emotional resonance.
So, sure, Viking battles are cool and all. But nothing beats flying on the back of a friendly dragon.