“Vikings versus dragons” is definitely one of the cooler premises for a computer-animated tale to come along in a while. Differentiate the dragons into half a dozen distinct species, each with unique traits, from the roly-poly Gronkle to the two-headed Hideous Zippleback and the stealthy, jet-black Night Fury, and it’s even cooler — especially if the dragons are ordinary beasties rather than anthropomorphized talking monsters.
Now make the young protagonist a teenaged misfit with more brains than brawn, a scrawny Viking who prefers looking before leaping and would rather study dragons than slay them. Have him manage to befriend one of the island’s most feared predators, ultimately becoming its partner in flight. Okay, the coolness factor is off the charts.
This — and more — is what the writing/directing team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, last seen together on Disney’s delightful Lilo & Stitch, have done in How to Train Your Dragon, loosely inspired by the children’s book by Cressida Cowell.
How to Train Your Dragon blends the mythic-culture awesome of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda, the geek chic of Sony’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the dragon-riding euphoria of Avatar into an uneven but rollicking adventure that manages to be touching, funny, exhilarating and ultimately about as thrilling as a climactic battle with Vikings and dragons can possibly be.
As they did in Lilo & Stitch with Hawaii, DeBlois and Sanders create a gorgeously realized island world with a specific geographical and cultural feel. The story takes us to the bleak, rugged island of Berk, where a stubborn clan of Vikings ekes out a difficult living battling the indigenous pests, which happen to be dragons.
From the craggy landscape to the rude Scandinavian architecture of the Viking village, from the lush valley lake where the hero befriends his dragon to the mist-shrouded, treacherous approach to the dragons’ nest, Berk is the kind of place that Bear Grylls would so have to add to his travelogue, if only it existed.
How to Train doesn’t match the soulfulness of Lilo & Stitch, and characters are sketched too one-dimensionally. Protagonist Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III’s wounded irony, caustically delivered by Jay Baruchel (Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian), gets old quickly. His chieftain father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler in full-on Beowulf/Attila mode), is an unreconstructed exemplar of that tiredest of negative parental stereotypes: the overbearing patriarch who doesn’t understand his offspring and regards him with nothing but disappointment. I admit the inevitable third-act rapprochement had me misty-eyed, but can’t the father be a little humanized before the very end?
Happily, Stoick is somewhat offset by Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), the peg-legged, one-handed old tough who trains young Vikings in the ways of dragon slaying. Hiccup’s peers are mostly loutish Viking jocks, and Hiccup’s misadventures in dragon training may take some adult viewers back to dark hours in high school gym class — but Gobber himself is far from the gym teacher–drillmaster sadist stereotype.
Gobber may not quite understand Hiccup either, but he looks out for him and tries to mediate between Stoick and Hiccup. In a flick like this, it’s nice to have a sympathetic adult figure, especially an old-school man’s man like Gobber, just to be clear that brawn isn’t bad. (Butler and Ferguson, both Scots, give their lumbering roughnecks burrs echoing DreamWorks’ poster boy Shrek — which seems appropriate here, since author Cowell is also a Scot and the island of Berk was inspired by Cowell’s childhood memories of a remote, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. On the other hand, the kids all have American accents.)
Then there’s Astrid (America Ferrera), teenage ice maiden in training and Berk’s reigning It Girl. Éowyn by way of Hermione, Astrid is all business when it comes to dragon slaying. Naturally, Hiccup is smitten, though the title of voice actor Baruchel’s other movie this month, She’s Out of My League, about sums up the situation here as well.
Or does it? Like the nerdy hero of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Hiccup tends to make a bad first impression (or 500th impression, for that matter), but anyone paying attention is eventually going to notice that he’s paying attention too, thinking and working outside the box in ways that eventually start paying dividends. Astrid may be an ice maiden, but she’s paying attention.
Nor is Hiccup the first Viking to use his eyes and his wits. His peers might complain about studying books of dragon lore: “What’s the point of reading books if you can just kill the things the books tell you about?” But earlier generations of Vikings made those books with their anatomical illustrations and behavioral observations. Hiccup stands on their shoulders and sees farther than they did.
Then he stands on the dragon’s shoulders, and forget about it. Like Avatar, How to Train is at its best in the air, especially in 3D, where the full range of depth really comes into its own. People say if God meant us to fly, he would have given us wings. I don’t believe it. If God hadn’t meant us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us dreams — or imagination.
Although we eventually learn that the dragons of Berk have been somewhat misunderstood, How to Train isn’t another Pocahontas tale or war-on-terror allegory, politically minded critics to the contrary notwithstanding. The moral here is not, as some critics have proposed, “dragons are people too.” (Clearly they’re animals — and potentially pets.) The misunderstood-dragon thing is more like those myth-busting nature documentaries about animals with bad reputations, like bats or snakes. Understanding nature, not our neighbors, is the thematic hook (though hooks can be used for hanging all kinds of things).
It’s also worth noting that not all dragons are our friends. The draconine hierarchy of Berk is a bit more complicated that it initially appears. When all misunderstandings have been cleared up and all needless conflicts resolved, there is still a predatory malevolence that cannot be soothed by all Hiccup’s dragon-whispering techniques: a kill-or-be-killed reckoning with a monstrous and implacable enemy.
Hiccup may even have Providence on his side. Wandering the countryside after a recent humiliation, Hiccup bursts out, “The gods hate me!” — whereupon the universe just about slaps him in the face, but in a salutary way, to open his eyes to what’s in front of him. How often does that happen in an animated film?
I love that Brother Aidan’s cat in The Secret of Kells is called Pangur Bán. The unknown eighth or ninth-century Irish monk who, in a playful respite from his normal work, penned in the margins of a Latin New Testament manuscript an affectionate ode in his native tongue to the mouse-catching prowess of his white cat would surely be astounded to find Pangur Bán again commemorated in pen and ink over a millenium later, romping across backgrounds that look at times like the decorative work of the monks themselves brought to life.
In theaters right now are two charming and visually engaging animated films at opposite ends of the budget spectrum, different in many respects but with some interesting overlap as well. One is How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks’ big-budget CGI adaptation of a popular children’s book. The other is The Secret of Kells, an Oscar-nominated Irish animated indie made on a comparative shoestring budget, now in limited release.
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I always enjoy reading your reviews. Regarding How to Train Your Dragon, I have two sons (and one on the way). These days it’s hard to find strong male role models for young boys. It seems the scrawny and wimpy boy character is celebrated these days more than the strong, brave boy/man. It’s discouraging for a mom who wants to show her sons models of strong, brave men. Because of this, I’m not sure if I’m interested in having my son watch this movie.
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Many friends and family members have spoken very highly of How to Train Your Dragon, but I have also read A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O’Brien which strongly cautions against books and movies which depict dragons as protagonists. I am curious, have you read this book?
Basically, the issue is that dragons in classic literature were always meant to symbolize evil or even the devil. In recent decades, the pagan culture has crept in and robbed these symbols of their meanings. To quote from the book’s preface:
This kind of reversal of symbolism constitutes an invasion of the imagination, undermining our ability to recognize truth. Good is no longer perceived as good, nor evil as evil; traditional Christian values are considered to be the product of a narrow-minded prejudice. This has led to a blend of human and diabolical concepts in the written word and, more recently, in cinema. A new world view is being propagated, one that attempts to convince the young that demons are friends or cuddly pets and that people can use evil means to achieve “good” ends.
I’ve always trusted your reviews to give us an alternative Christian lens through which to understand what is good and bad in movies. I often rely on your website when trying to decide whether to see a given movie. I respect your ability to differentiate between the artistic merit of a film and its moral value. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.