Dreamworks’s 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Hiccup, a Viking whose village is regularly attacked by dragons. Due to his physical weakness and lack of fighting skills Hiccup is an outsider in his village, the others not recognizing his high intellect and inventiveness as useful. Yearning for recognition and acceptance, Hiccup joins the fight regardless of his worried father’s, the village’s leader, wishes. Through one of his inventions he succeeds in downing a dragon, but can not bring himself to kill it. Instead, Hiccup realises that there is more to the species than his people know and becomes friends with the dragon, whom he names Toothless. Through their developing relationship while they train together in order to enable the wounded Toothless to fly again, Hiccup realizes how wrong his people in their lack of knowledge were in their judgement of dragons. Together the two friends fight against this ignorance in order to stop the warring between their two species.
Dreamworks’s film falls into the family genre as it is entertaining no matter what age you are. That is a feature a lot of animated films share as “animations are not a strictly-defined genre category, but rather a film technique, although they often contain genre-like elements. […]Animated films are often directed to, or appeal most to children, but easily can be enjoyed by all.”1
The animation itself is flawless, the world is perfectly rendered on screen, and the experience can be beautifully enhanced through the well-made 3D. Add the gorgeous soundtrack, and the viewer gets drawn into a fantastic world. While the animation itself is perfect, the film makers deliberately designed their characters in an imperfect way to make them look more human and not like machines, or simply not like animated, artificial characters.
Sticking out is the design of Toothless, his appearance undeniably cute and lively, as well as the breathtakingly beautiful flight scenes. The engaging story and great action also cross the genre with that of adventure, and is told in a way that is engaging for young and old, like a lot of animated features. The humour the film offers falls into the same category, featuring lots of different kinds, from irony to situational humour, providing something amusing for everyone in the audience to understand. The first friendly interaction of Hiccup and Toothless features the dragon hilariously demonstrating to the human how to eat the raw fish.
The film also has several moral messages, mostly directed at its younger audience, who can easily identify with the characters, but it also provides some thought provoking ideas for its older audience.
The most prominent message in How to Train Your Dragon would be that just because something is different, it does not mean that it is bad. This is depicted in, on the one hand, how different Hiccup is from the rest of his society, and on the other hand, in the conflict with the dragons. It shows the negative results of lack of understanding, as well as the importance of knowledge and friendship.
Hiccup is the link between the two communities of humans and dragons. Not only is he the one who forms the connection with Toothless, he also shares the “being different” part with the dragons, as the villagers do not understand him and he therefore is willing to understand open to find out more about the dragons. Hiccup’s inability to fit in, his differentness, and the fact that he is not accepted by his peers is something common for people to feel during their adolescence and is therefore very relatable. Adults will be reminded of that time of their life, while the younger audience receives the message that, eventually, they will find their place, as at the end Hiccup is able to fit in without having to change himself. The film uses the relationship of Hiccup and Toothless to illustrate the way of finding oneself. His training with Toothless makes Hiccup grow into himself more. He sees exactly what and how much he is able to accomplish with his own skills, his intellect. This makes it easier for him to accept himself and finally leads to him finding his place. Also notable is the nod to family here, as Hiccup and his father are finally able to understand each other. The other people of his villages recognize his worth and accept him. This also gives the message for children that just because something has been a certain way for a long time, it does not mean that is is right and that it has to remain this way. On the same time, it asks of its adult audience to be open to change and listen to the younger generation.
The dragons are used in order to show how misunderstanding and the fear of the unknown can create conflict and hate. Furthermore, it does not depict the sides as good and evil, but shows that the reasons for their war lie in misconception and otherness. The film starts out with the common connotation of dragons as dangerous, evil, and a foe that must be fought in order to keep yourself and your community safe. However, the viewer is later shown how wrong this perception is, by watching the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless develop. This is illustrated by Hiccup’s realisation: “Everything we know about you guys is wrong2”. Due to this realisation and the knowledge he gathers from his contact with Toothless, Hiccup comes to understand that the cause of the conflict with the dragons is the humans lack of knowledge about them and a history of misunderstanding. Another strong factor is fear. The dragons and the humans form two communities who are afraid of each other, scared hat the other one will destroy them. They both fear the same, which makes change so difficult.
As soon as Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless starts, the humans are seen as the bad guys. The fact that they have to defend themselves against the dragons is overshadowed by their enjoyment of the fight, their offensive against the dragons, as well as the treatment of captured ones. On the other hand, the dragons are acting out of need for survival, they need food for themselves and for their leader in order to not be eaten themselves. This negativity of humans can be seen when Hiccup brings Toothless food for the first time. The dragon is curious but also suspicious of him, only coming close after the human has discarded his weapon. Hiccup, on the other hand, is scared of Toothless, despite the dragon’s sole interest in the food with no move to harm Hiccup. This illustrates the basis of the relationship of humans and dragons, the men’s fear of the dragons due to their appearance and not bothering to take a closer look but reacting to that first instinct without trying to find more information. Toothless’s fear of humans further depicts them as the bad guys.
This criticism of human behaviour, however, gets turned around towards the end of the film. The dragons in their natural habitat are suffering, and it is due to the intervention by the humans that they are freed from the oppression of the their leader and are able to live happy with the humans. This idea of humans intervening in nature is debatable, as the invasion of animals natural habitat can also be problematic. Especially as the dragons end up as pets, and therefore lose their freedom. In this context, however, this is justifiable, as the dragons previously were enslaved and seem to be happy with their new situation. Yet, this principal can not always be applied. Still, it also gets redeemed a bit by the mutual understanding and collaboration of the humans and dragons. After all, they have, mostly through Toothless and Hiccup, defeated a common enemy together. It was not just one side that gained the victory. One could not have won without the other.
Nevertheless, one of the main issues the film has, is the crippling of Toothless that makes the whole narrative possible. The film wants the viewer to forget this, by trying to redeem Hiccup by having him make the prosthesis for the dragon. However, this makes Toothless dependent on him, which can be seen in a negative way, a way of control over the dragon. Particularly as Toothless would not have needed it, if not for Hiccup. Only as they become friends the prosthesis becomes a sign of their mutual trust and amazing teamwork. Further redemption comes, when Hiccup loses his leg. However, the situation is the complete opposite, Toothless saving Hiccup’s life instead of trying to kill him. But Hiccup’s acceptance of the situation illuminates the fact, that the lack of his leg is not really a loss and that they are now, in a way, even. Hiccup has Toothless to compensate for his loss, just as Toothless has him, they are completing each other.
Unlike many other animated films, How to Train Your Dragon does not humanise its animals that much. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the dragons are unable to talk. It highlights the difficulties of understanding between the two species. In the beginning, Hiccup and Toothless have to completely rely on gestures to understand each other. Something similar can be observed in Pixar’s Ratatouille. However, the rats there are communicating with each other through human language, it’s only the humans in the film that they are unable to communicate with. The rats become anthropomorphic, copying human behaviour in order to be understood. This does not happen with the dragons, their behaviour remains that of animals. However, after Hiccup and Toothless have become friends, they are able to understand each other without the need to speak each other’s language. The audience is in the same position as the characters and go through this transition with them. This highlights the film’s message of understanding and the overcoming of differences
Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon, (Great Britain, Clays Ltd, St Ives plc, 2003)
Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com, “How to Train Your Dragon”: Triumph of the beast, Review
Jeremy Jahns, Review
1Animated Films<https://www.filmsite.org/dramafilms.html> [accessed 10. January 2015]
2How to Train Your Dragon (dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010)