Toothless is more
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
OK, deep breath. I kinda thought HTTYD was average as all hell when it first came out. In fact, I wrote a review four years ago saying as much. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, it’s just for the longest time I couldn’t see anything more in it other than a distracting electric babysitter for spoiled little shits. However, time has softened my judgement and when I decided to rewatch the original in preparation for the sequel and found myself reacting to it very differently. I’m a proud man, but willing to admit I was wrong. It’s chuffing brilliant. Sorry it took me so long to join the party.
“Either we finish them, or they’ll finish us! It’s the only way we’ll be rid of them! If we find the nest and destroy it, the dragons will leave.”
How to Train Your Dragon follows awkward Viking teenager Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). As the son of the aptly named chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) there are a great many things expected of him, although the town regards him as a screw up. They live in the village of Berk, a very old place with suspiciously new buildings. Turns out Berk is a hostile dragon hotspot and is regularly raided by the fire-breathing monsters. After he wings an attacking dragon with a net and grounds it, Hiccup names it “Toothless” and starts bonding with the creature and starts to question whether dragons are the fearsome killers they’re made out to be. It’s a simple tale, but it’s incredibly well executed. Dreamworks’ film before this point tended to feel like snarky joke-delivery vehicles, but HTTYD is a “proper” film. It’s beautifully animated and it has a really appealing art style, similar to Asterix, with the big, burly Vikings clearly attending the same buffets as Obelix. It shares a lot of Disney DNA, especially with Lilo & Stitch, which also has a human/creature relationship at the centre of things. Jay Baruchel’s reedy, perpetually breaking Hiccup voice is perfect for the part. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson Scot things up a bit as Stoick and Gobber, although the mystery of how Vikings ended up with Scottish accents when the kids speak with American tones is never solved. The voice cast is decent with several reliable comedians like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig popping up.
The film is charming. It focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The slow process of two fearful beings slowly trusting each other and liking each other is seriously well done. When Hiccup does finally fly with Toothless, it’s exhilarating. The music, the gorgeous visuals and everything else blend together into something genuinely special. The film isn’t all whiz-bang dragon flying though. It has time for human characters too. Stoick’s relationship with Hiccup is relatable and touching. They may be talking about dragon slaying, but the emotions are believable. Same with Astrid (America Ferrera). The film pays great attention to giving her an actual personality, rather than just being the stock “love interest”. There are some really decent messages contained within. Be kind to animals, brain over brawn etc. Crucially, it never feels preachy. The motivations, theming and all that good behind the scenes stuff is top quality too. I won’t say that the film deals with surprisingly dark stuff as most kids’ film worth anything do, but it handles mature ideas with a deft touch and it makes the film all the more enjoyable to know that the film isn’t just content with being flashy colours and shapes to sedate its young audience.
There’s been a lot of criticism over the idea that HTTYD is derivative. Yeah, I’m sure you could find countless films that share the same basic story. However, HTTYD doesn’t feel like a cynical, rip-off cashgrab. It takes basic storytelling elements and runs with them, giving us a unique setting and colourful characters. Here’s the thing. It’s one thing to stuff your film with a bunch of clichés, but it’s a completely different thing to understand their purpose and function. HTTYD knows these things and uses them to create a solid framework. Most of the time it’s when tropes are handled badly that it really becomes noticeable and you can see the stitches barely holding all of it together. The script is slick and efficient. Notice I didn’t say “great” because the dialogue is the only real thing that needs to be punched up. It’s not as funny as it should be and the lack of jokes outside of dumb kid pandering stuff is noticeable, but not a problem when taken as a whole.
“This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. “
How to Train Your Dragon is fantastic. I can see why it’s resonated with so many people. Strong characterisation, a lovely central friendship between a boy and his dragon and some thrilling flight scenes coupled with an epic scale finale make it a modern classic of the genre. It’s a joy.