Based on Cressida Cowell’s popular series of children’s books, the 2010 DreamWorks animation How to Train Your Dragon stands as one of the studio’s most beloved films to date ― along with its equally acclaimed sequel. Though adorned with Vikings and dragons, it’s a hero’s journey as old as storytelling itself:
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a disappointment to his village leader father (Gerard Butler). He’s scrawny and too sensitive in the eyes of the hardened warriors around him, and despite his best efforts, he’s unable to learn the toughness of the Viking way. For example, killing a dragon would be the making of him, but when given the chance he can’t help himself but befriend the wounded beast instead: “I couldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was”.
How to Train Your Dragon tracks Hiccup’s gradual realization that his empathy towards the creature his village has dismissed as a monster is not a weakness, but a strength. It is a coming-of-age tale as true and satisfying as any we see in any other film medium or genre. He does not change who he is ― instead, he realizes who he is doesn’t need to change.
Studio animation can often feel like product, fit with pre-packaged jokes and story beats that are calculated to maximize profit. How to Train Your Dragon stands out for the sequences in which it embraces the wordless cinema of experience. For example, in the first sequence when Hiccup flies the dragon he has named Toothless, is nail biting and execiting, but when Hiccup and Toothless find their footing, the agile and elegant animation ― coupled with Powell’s sweeping, moving score ― makes the sequence genuinely breathtaking as well.
How to Train Your Dragon, while conventionally told in several respects, stands out for the grandeur of its spectacle and the way it relays its message. Hiccup’s ‘boy and his dog’ relationship with Toothless is charming, and how the film incorporates disability into the narrative through their two characters is something that a lot more mainstream films could learn from. Most of all, the statement the film ends on is refreshing: Hiccup’s ultimate triumph does not come from being the singular hero, but from helping his village to work together towards the same goal.