Vikings don’t take guff. Guff slides off Vikings like omelets off a non-stick skillet. Throw a hunk of guff at a Viking, and he’ll snort out a chortle before batting it away with his massive battle-ax or billowing beard or mighty breath.
Nosirreee, Vikings take no guff. Unless, of course, it comes in the form of … dragons.
Alack, the village of Berk has a dragon problem. Every now and then, a flock of them descends from the sky to snatch a nervous sheep or two or 20. It’s a ba-a-a-a-d situation, particularly for the sheep, and the Vikings—as guff resistant as they are—can’t quite figure out how to make the dragons go away. Even the great Viking leader, Stoick the Vast, seems at a loss to shoo away these pesky fire-breathers and save their jittery sheep. Every now and then, he gathers his bravest warriors and plows through Scandinavia’s coldish waters in search of the dragons’ home nest (or hive or condo or whatever) in the hopes of giving some guff of his own. The only things he returns with are more holes in his boats.
Of course the only thing Vikings like less than guff is quitting. So they wage their eternal war on the dragons with gusto. That’s bad news for Stoick’s gangly, grace-averse son, Hiccup. The lad’s sure that if he managed to off a dragon he’d get a girlfriend, make his father proud and maybe not feel quite so geeky. But, as everyone in the village reminds him, Hiccup’s about as capable of killing a dragon as that “Pants on the Ground” guy was of winning American Idol.
“You are many things, Hiccup,” his father tells him. “But a dragon killer is not one of them.”
That doesn’t stop Hiccup from trying. So during one particularly frenetic dragon attack, Hiccup fires off a homemade snaring weapon and seems to hit a Night Fury—the most mysterious, elusive dragon of all. The next morning he goes into the forest to see if his “catch” is still there, and sure enough, it is—its limbs tangled and tied and, for the moment, incapable of showering guff on anyone.
Hiccup takes his knife out of his belt, walks toward the terrible beast and prepares to deliver the death blow. He raises his hand, and—
Well, whatever happens next, you know what doesn’t. I mean, the title of the film isn’t How to Kill Your Dragon, is it?
Man’s best friend is supposed to be his dog … and Hiccup’s dragon is like Lassie with wings. Toothless, as Hiccup calls him, becomes as loyal, as versatile and as desirable a companion as any boy could ask for. While the rest of the village rejects Hiccup because he’s just too weak and weird to be a viable Viking, Toothless loves the lad just as he is (and for the fish Hiccup brings him). He defends the boy when he’s in danger, risks his own life for him and, eventually, saves Hiccup from a terrible end.
Hiccup pulls his weight in the relationship, too, protecting Toothless from discovery and danger, and working up a special gadget to help the injured dragon fly again. At the same time, he tries to please his pops—even though embracing both his dragon and his dad seems an impossibility for most of the movie. Eventually, Hiccup risks his well-being to rescue Toothless and save his village.
Stoick, for his part, struggles to relate to Hiccup. They have very little in common, and the rough-and-tumble leader can’t help but wish that his boy was more stereotypically Viking. Or, in other words, more like him. But we always get the sense that Stoick loves his son and wants what’s best for him. And after a bitter crisis, the elder Viking learns to appreciate Hiccup’s special gifts and even honors his son by rescuing Toothless from a watery death.
The people of Berk don’t seem particularly religious, but we do hear them reference the Norse gods Odin and Thor. Hiccup muses that the gods must hate him.
Hiccup has a crush on Astrid, a shapely Viking girl. The two fall on top of each other during dragon-fighting class (prompting a classmate to quip, “Love on the battlefield”). They later kiss—once on the cheek and once on the mouth. The movie’s looking for giggles when Stoick gives Hiccup a Viking helmet, telling him it was made from half of the boy’s late mother’s breastplate. “Part of a matching set,” Stoick says knowingly, tapping his own helmet.
Neither Vikings nor dragons are known for their pacifism, and the two species go at it with cartoonish vigor here. The result is lots of slapstick violence—characters getting smacked on the head, running into trees and whatnot—most often played for laughs. Folks sometimes thwack each other on the arm, like school kids on the playground.
But there’s a touch of menace, too. We hear that hundreds of Vikings and thousands of dragons have died during hostilities. Killing a dragon is a rite of passage for every Viking, and much of Hiccup’s narrative leads up to the time when he will be forced to kill a fire-breather in front of the whole village. The Vikings learn about dragons from a book filled with gory illustrations (we see crudely drawn men getting impaled and immolated), notated with the admonition that dragons are extremely dangerous. “Kill on sight.”
Hiccup and Toothless’ first meeting is loaded with menace: Hiccup tells the incapacitated dragon that he’s going to “cut out your heart and take it to my father.” When Hiccup instead cuts the dragon loose, it looks for a moment like Toothless will literally bite the boy’s head off. Both Toothless and Hiccup suffer permanent injuries during the course of the film.
[Spoiler Warning] Stoick chains up Toothless and uses the creature’s senses to find the dragons’ home island, where a massive dragon overlord lurks. This dragon of dragons—maybe comparable to a honeybee queen—is as large and scary as Pinocchio’s giant whale Monstro, and a massive battle against the beast ensues, filled with fire and mayhem. The huge dragon eventually plunges into the rocks and water (another echo of Monstro) and, apparently, dies—though the moment of impact is obscured by waves and flame.
One use of “h‑‑‑,” one “gosh” and a couple of references to the “butt” region.
Hiccup doesn’t tell his father or the rest of the village about Toothless. (The negativity of his bad choice is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he later realizes it was a mistake.) He considers running away from home so he won’t have to kill a dragon. Toothless regurgitates part of a fish in an effort to share it with Hiccup. Hiccup feels compelled to take a bite.
The plot of How to Train Your Dragon is probably as old as the Viking culture itself: A child, disconnected in some way from peers or community, finds a loyal friend outside the realm of humanity—a dog, a mouse, a horse, a dolphin, E.T. Or a dragon.
“I looked at him, and I saw myself,” Hiccup confesses to Astrid.
When I looked at Toothless, I didn’t so much see myself as my own dog—a cute, furry toddler of a canine that chases laser pointers, fancies carrots and loves me so much that he’d write this review for me if he could figure out how to type with his paws. (Who knows, maybe he’d be better at it than I am.) This, then, is a film that reminds us why so many of us love animals: Because they love us back. Sometimes, especially in hard times, animals can indeed feel like our best friends. They trust us when we feel untrustworthy, love us when we feel unlovable. And there’s something to be said for that—even if the animals in question don’t breathe fire or fly.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that Hiccup’s love for his dragon influences him to do some pretty inadvisable things. He keeps secrets and considers running away. He and his father come to a serious disagreement that threatens to ruin their relationship forever. So this isn’t a movie to leave your kids alone with. (Not that any movie is.) This is a movie that, if your family sees it, should be talked about afterward.
But I don’t think caution sinks the film’s soaring spirit. How to Train Your Dragon may actually be DreamWorks Animation’s best movie yet—a fun, thrilling Viking voyage that, in the end, is a simple yet salient story about a dragon and his boy.
Read Chris Sanders’ Very Own Personal Dragon, Plugged In’s interview with the director of How to Train Your Dragon.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.