Dir. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Starring Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson
I vividly remember where I was the first time I saw a commercial for How to Train Your Dragon. I was a freshman in college and I was on my top bunk; my roommate was on the bottom one at the time, and both of us laughed uproariously at the name. To college freshmen, it inevitably sounded like a euphemism. I also vividly remember where I was when I saw the movie for the first time. My roommate had seen it without me and had reported that despite our laughter at the title, the movie itself was pretty good. We watched it with a couple of other friends in their dorm room, and I was surprised: the movie was pretty good.
How to Train Your Dragon, while hardly a secret, is always going to be overshadowed by Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 was always meant to waltz to the Best Animated Feature Oscar for 2010 (becoming the third, and as of this writing last, animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture), although I think by the time of the award ceremony there were some brave folk willing to go on the record calling How to Train Your Dragon the better movie. Of course, there were some people willing to go on the record to say that Toy Story 3 should have won Best Picture that year on top of Best Animated Feature, and there are also people who think deep-dish pizza is good. The point is that How to Train Your Dragon, despite its own success and the monetary success of the property, will probably always exist in the shadow of its animated big brother. To me, How to Train Your Dragon splashes too long in predictable character waters, while Toy Story 3 traffics shamelessly in brand-related schmaltz. You can choose your preferred flavor.
What How to Train Your Dragon does remarkably well is its “final boss” finale. Most films which decide to use that trope seem lost as to why they are, in fact, going in that direction. But How to Train Your Dragon, which ends with a physics-defying dragon chasing Toothless and Hiccup (Baruchel) around the clouds, uses that boss dragon (“Green Death”) as a way to create sympathy, and a reasonable ending, for its central conflict. It turns out that the dragons who have plagued Hiccup’s hometown for so many generations are in fact stealing sheep from the Vikings because they pay tribute to/feed a monstrous giant dragon deep within their territory. Dragons themselves, as Hiccup has proved with several species and with several tricks, are not in themselves violent critters. Dragons like to be scratched, eat fish but definitely not smoked eels, curl up next to people, and like to roll around on their backs; in other words, dragons are cats. (This may disproportionately increase my enjoyment of the film; Toothless is the kitty I’ll never get to have.) When we find out that the dragons are more or less in thrall to the boss dragon, we feel a sympathy for them collectively in a way that previously we had only felt for Toothless, whose faithful (and occasionally bizarre) personality shone through from practically the first meeting Hiccup has with him. The boss himself makes for a fairly worthy adversary, and one Stoick the Vast (Butler), Hiccup’s domineering he-man father, cannot defeat. Only Hiccup aboard his Night Fury – with whom he has literally forged a symbiotic relationship – has the requisite ability to beat the boss dragon.
Hiccup and Stoick’s relationship is the film’s most tired element, and much of the film is built from elements that are already threadbare. Focusing on a talented outsider nerd who like, just doesn’t fit in, man, is certifiably dull just about all the time. What revives Hiccup from this snoozer is not the dragon (“talented outsider nerd finds affirmation from a surprising source!”), but the study in communication. Toothless is at least as smart as any of the people in this movie but cannot talk to anyone; it takes Hiccup, who is totally incapable of getting a word in edgewise with his dad and is constantly ignored by everyone else, to figure out how dragons tick. No one else, it turns out, has ever really tried. Presumably the other Vikings stabbed first. (The smartest thing Orson Scott Card ever wrote was, naturally, from the mouth of Graff: “If the other fellow can’t tell you his story, you can never be sure he isn’t trying to kill you.” The other Vikings have erred on the side of caution, so to speak. Hiccup, too gentle to stab a prone and trapped Toothless to death, is forced to figure out the dragon’s story instead.) The film doesn’t give a strict time for how long Stoick is gone to seek the dragon nest/how long Hiccup is in dragon training, though I personally read it as at least a couple of weeks. In that time, Hiccup has to go some through trial and error to convince Toothless to interact with him in good faith, and then takes more time to learn how to fly his trapped dragon. It’s a well-made montage, which intercuts his experience with Toothless with his ascent to the top rank of dragon fighters. This is where he learns that dragons have a “weak spot” for scratching more or less in their armpits, that dragons love the smell of fresh grass, and that they definitely do not like smoked eel. He’s a whisperer, though, and not a translator. Just because he’s figured out that dragons aren’t really so tough doesn’t mean that anyone else gets it, and appropriately for a children’s movie, it ultimately takes the threat of eradication to all of the Vikings for people to come around en masse.
How to Make Your Dragon recognizes that the best thing about having a dragon as your best friend, especially one you’ve maimed in your attempt to show the other Vikings that you’re a bad bad man, is that you get to fly him. Toothless is, with the exception of the loss of one of his tail flaps, uninjured by Hiccup’s portable catapult. Hiccup fashions him a series of new flaps made from leather, and uses that as a way to learn to fly a dragon. This is where the animation shines; it lacks the majesty of, say, Avatar, but replaces some of the grandeur of the Hallelujah Mountains with the sensation of air resistance. Gravity is a major player in Hiccup and Toothless’ flight plans in a way that other films, worked up with the sensation of speed or agility, cannot replicate. Independence Day and Rogue One have two of the most intense air combat scenes of the past twenty years or so, but the focus is on what the planes (or, y’know, X-Wings) blow up and what their aerial maneuvers are. There’s a thrill in watching Hiccup and Toothless zoom through rocky formations just feet above the surface of the ocean, but I found myself even more taken watching Toothless try to slow his descent by using his wings like a parachute, or the way that his face looks when he and Hiccup are falling out of the sky or, most memorably, how the picture moves to circle, like Toothless does, in a night sky.