Retro Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders

Writers: William Davies, Dean DeBlois

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Genre: Family, Fantasy, Animation

Rated: PG-13

In January 2010, the visual effects juggernaut Avatar hit theaters. Two months later came How to Train Your Dragon. While not as immediately groundbreaking as the unprecedented success of the former, the family feature released to thunderous praise and has cemented its place as a widespread favorite among all ages for animated movies.

Content Guide

Violence: Characters attack dragons and occasionally each other with swords and shields, mostly during training. They also sometimes punch or tackle one another. Dragons attack characters with fire, tails, claws, teeth, and poison gas.  One character holds up a knife while stating his intention to rip out the heart of a helpless but still alive dragon, though he doesn’t go through with it.

Language/Crude Humor:  There’s some mild name-calling.

Drug/Alcohol Content: Grown-up Vikings appear to be drinking in a tavern.

Spiritual Content: None.

Sexual Content: Astrid kisses Hiccup twice, once on the cheek and once on the lips.

Other Negative Content: Aside from being based on a historical culture with questionable values, the film’s Vikings live lives that heavily glorify violence and killing, although their targets are dragons rather than humans.

Positive Content: The movie carries deep themes about sacrificing for others, being willing to go against the majority when it’s right, and that it’s not always best to try and please others.

Review

On the primitive Viking island of Berk, war with the dragon hoards is a daily norm. Death by fire is waved off as an occupational hazard, and children begin training in their early teens to prepare to fight the beasts. When Hiccup, the scrawny son of the village chief, captures a rare and powerful type of dragon, he chooses to free it rather than killing it. So begins a platonic cross-species Romeo-and-Juliet-style relationship as Hiccup continues to secretly meet, befriend, and help his new dragon companion. With his father seeking a way to destroy the dragons for good, Hiccup may have found the key to forming peace between the rival species–or he may be putting everyone in even greater danger.

2010 was a year in which a new standard was set for the quality of animation and CGI effects in feature films. James Cameron’s Avatar, released in the January of that year (yes, it’s been almost a decade and we all feel very old, now please settle down) was heralded as a generational breakthrough in movie visuals; and so, as just the second animated film released in the post-Avatar world, How to Train Your Dragon found itself presented to an audience whose expectations for animation, especially in 3D, had reached historic heights.

And it met them.

From its flight sequences to its character design to its fresh take on dragons themselves, the film’s animation received almost nothing but praise from critics, and deservedly so. While the bulk of the Vikings themselves are predictably homogenous, the movie soars above the bar for animated excellence. Especially when viewed in theatres, Hiccup’s dragon-riding escapades are immersive enough to make your stomach flip. The animation also seamlessly lends weight to the storytelling and character building.

This is encapsulated nowhere better than with the dragon Toothless, who is convincingly made out to be menacing, playful, and adorable without ever breaking his established character. Being able to give nonverbal characters fully fleshed out personalities sans dialogue has long been a sort of litmus test for the effectiveness of animation. It’s refreshing to see how it can be done with new and different types of creatures, particularly when they’re the sort that is less commonly used for such a purpose.

The story itself isn’t horrendously original; it’s a simple matter to pick apart the smorgasbord of tropes from which the plot is constructed. But the pieces are packed together so that storyline flows smoothly enough to mask the heaviness of the film’s themes while never diminishing them. Themes such as the dangers of warmongering, parental pressure, sacrificing for the sake of the oppressed, and the virtues and dangers of fighting against popular opinion are meaty themes for a family film, but the movie never feels overly weighty or somber.

In large part, this is thanks to how deftly the film handles its humor. The characters are simply allowed to be themselves, and jokes or bizarre statements don’t have attention called for them. Visual humor is used to progress the plot rather than as an aside or a distraction from it. The result is that every joke feels natural and perfectly placed within its environment. While rewatching, I was pleasantly struck by how quickly scenes were allowed to move on from humorous moments, particularly some of the lines I remembered the most from my original viewing.

The one problem humor-wise is the handling of a portion of its side characters, who are one-dimensional caricatures only used as comic relief. While they serve this role well, their mandated shallowness becomes grating at times. It also contributes to some pointedly abrupt pacing near the film’s climax. Some things may have simply been edited out for runtime, but–without spoiling anything for the two people reading this who still haven’t seen the movie–a plan simply goes far too well for a band of young’uns who have previously been portrayed as thoroughly incompetent.

How to Train Your Dragon emerged immediately to overwhelmingly positive receptions from fans and critics alike, and to this day remains a favorite animated film for many. Despite its habit of recycling movie tropes, it still finds ways to be a fresh, funny, engaging film with stellar animation and a masterful balance between the tension of its themes and the simply fun moments of watching a boy and a dragon try to awkwardly figure out how to bond with one another. Spawning a successful blockbuster trilogy is no minor feat, and while the series may have concluded, its position as a top-notch animated film will continue for some time yet.

Positives

+Animation is creative and used fantastically as a storytelling device +Well-timed verbal and visual humor +Dragons

Negatives

-Abrupt pacing, particularly just before the climax -Side characters are thoroughly one-dimensional

The Bottom Line

Stellar animation, smoothy comedy, and a treasure trove of powerful themes all woven together into an engaging tapestry that any age can find themselves immersed in.

 

8.3

Ian Hancock

Ian is a speculative fiction writer with an English degree from the University of the Fraser Valley. When he's not writing, he enjoys strategy games, sports, anime, and finding new ways to make fun of life.

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