I’ve wanted to talk about How to Train Your Dragon for a while now, and last week’s review of Merrie Haskell’s Handbook for Dragon Slayers and the resulting comments about disability in fiction made me finally sit my butt down to do it.
I love this movie. I love the story, I love the message and themes, I love the humor … there’s very little it gets wrong, in my opinion. I would have appreciated more female characters, but even there, as I understand it, the movie improves on the source material.
The story is pretty straightforward. Hiccup is basically a nerd among Vikings. He works as an apprentice to the village blacksmith, but he lacks the physical strength and battle prowess of his fellow Vikings, and is more interested in gadgets and inventions that don’t always work. Oh, and his village is constantly fighting off dragons.
I’m rather fond of Jay Baruchel, the actor who voices Hiccup. He’s got a very distinctive voice, and his sardonic and often self-deprecating tone works for me.
During one dragon raid, Hiccup manages to shoot down a Night Fury, the deadliest breed of dragons. The Night Fury’s tail is crippled, leaving it unable to fly. Hiccup tracks where the dragon fell, planning to finish it off and prove himself, but he can’t do it. Instead, he studies and slowly befriends the dragon, which he names Toothless (because Night Furies have retractable teeth).
Toothless is awesome. The expressiveness and humor the animators capture in every scene is amazing. This dragon, who never says a word, is a better actor and character than most humans. I love the details, whether it’s watching him scorch a circle and turn around before settling down to sleep, or the obvious love and loyalty he develops for Hiccup. (Love and loyalty which are returned in full.)
Some of what follows is predictable, of course. Hiccup uses his secret dragon knowledge to impress the other Vikings and improve his standing, only to fall when the truth comes out. There’s a low-key romantic thing between Hiccup and Astrid. The dragons turn out to be more than simple livestock thieves, and there’s a big old battle at the end. While the twists aren’t entirely original, they’re well done and engaging.
But one of the things I most respect about this movie is how it handles disability.
The blacksmith, Gobber, has lost an arm and a leg, and the movie does the “Look at all the cool weapons and toys I can plug into my wrist” bit with his character. But with Toothless and later Hiccup, it’s presented seriously, without either minimizing the pain and the work or going overboard with Very Important Messages About Overcoming Adversity.
You see Toothless’ frustration and fear when he’s unable to fly, and an admittedly condensed process of Hiccup building and fitting the prosthetic tail, then the two of them learning to use it to fly together.
But what really works for me comes after the final battle. Hiccup is injured and loses his leg. You see him awaken back home in his own bed, start to sit up, and realize what’s happened to him. He has a wood-and-iron leg now, built by Gobber.
Skinny though he might be, Hiccup is still a Viking, so you’re not going to get a lot of outward grief. But you see the sadness and loss in those few seconds before he stands. He takes one step and starts to fall, only to have Toothless dart in to catch him. The two of them together make their way toward the door, giving the viewer a silhouetted shot of Hiccup’s new foot and Toothless’ prosthetic tail. The whole sequence is less than a minute long, but it’s one of my favorite scenes of the whole movie.
Short version: It’s a very well-written and visually entertaining movie. Y’all should watch it.