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How To Train Your Dragon

I’ve wanted to talk about How to Train Your Dragon for a while now, and last week’s review of Merrie Haskell’s Handbook for Dragon Slayers and the resulting comments about disability in fiction made me finally sit my butt down to do it.

I love this movie. I love the story, I love the message and themes, I love the humor … there’s very little it gets wrong, in my opinion. I would have appreciated more female characters, but even there, as I understand it, the movie improves on the source material.

The story is pretty straightforward. Hiccup is basically a nerd among Vikings. He works as an apprentice to the village blacksmith, but he lacks the physical strength and battle prowess of his fellow Vikings, and is more interested in gadgets and inventions that don’t always work. Oh, and his village is constantly fighting off dragons.

I’m rather fond of Jay Baruchel, the actor who voices Hiccup. He’s got a very distinctive voice, and his sardonic and often self-deprecating tone works for me.

During one dragon raid, Hiccup manages to shoot down a Night Fury, the deadliest breed of dragons. The Night Fury’s tail is crippled, leaving it unable to fly. Hiccup tracks where the dragon fell, planning to finish it off and prove himself, but he can’t do it. Instead, he studies and slowly befriends the dragon, which he names Toothless (because Night Furies have retractable teeth).

Toothless is awesome. The expressiveness and humor the animators capture in every scene is amazing. This dragon, who never says a word, is a better actor and character than most humans. I love the details, whether it’s watching him scorch a circle and turn around before settling down to sleep, or the obvious love and loyalty he develops for Hiccup. (Love and loyalty which are returned in full.)

Some of what follows is predictable, of course. Hiccup uses his secret dragon knowledge to impress the other Vikings and improve his standing, only to fall when the truth comes out. There’s a low-key romantic thing between Hiccup and Astrid. The dragons turn out to be more than simple livestock thieves, and there’s a big old battle at the end. While the twists aren’t entirely original, they’re well done and engaging.

But one of the things I most respect about this movie is how it handles disability.


The blacksmith, Gobber, has lost an arm and a leg, and the movie does the “Look at all the cool weapons and toys I can plug into my wrist” bit with his character. But with Toothless and later Hiccup, it’s presented seriously, without either minimizing the pain and the work or going overboard with Very Important Messages About Overcoming Adversity.

You see Toothless’ frustration and fear when he’s unable to fly, and an admittedly condensed process of Hiccup building and fitting the prosthetic tail, then the two of them learning to use it to fly together.

But what really works for me comes after the final battle. Hiccup is injured and loses his leg. You see him awaken back home in his own bed, start to sit up, and realize what’s happened to him. He has a wood-and-iron leg now, built by Gobber.

Skinny though he might be, Hiccup is still a Viking, so you’re not going to get a lot of outward grief. But you see the sadness and loss in those few seconds before he stands. He takes one step and starts to fall, only to have Toothless dart in to catch him. The two of them together make their way toward the door, giving the viewer a silhouetted shot of Hiccup’s new foot and Toothless’ prosthetic tail. The whole sequence is less than a minute long, but it’s one of my favorite scenes of the whole movie.

Short version: It’s a very well-written and visually entertaining movie. Y’all should watch it.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 44 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 11th, 2013 02:48 pm (UTC)
The title of this movie always turned me off and I thought it would be silly (in a bad way, sorry), so I never really looked into it. The stuff in your review sounds really cool though. I may check it out whenever I get Netflix back.
Feb. 11th, 2013 02:53 pm (UTC)
I think it's one of those movies that's really good, but didn't get the right marketing/publicity push. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" is another one like that. Great movies that forgot to let people know why they were great, if that makes sense?
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
This was one of those movies that I had no expectations of and loved to bits (Lilo and Stitch, which also seems to have gotten little love, was the same - though for different reasons.) Yep, it tells exactly the same story about overcoming adversity and living your dreams and whatever that other cartoons do, but does it so much better.

On other hand I was less impressed with 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.' I actually thought that hewed to the clichés a little to closely for me to get very excited by it. I guess the main character was just a bit too much of the 'man/child' standard to interest me.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:32 pm (UTC)
But ... but the Gummy Bears scene alone!!!
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:34 pm (UTC)
The Steve highlight reel is the finest thing ever to appear on YouTube.

Feb. 11th, 2013 03:42 pm (UTC)
I remember loving the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs book a long time ago although I only ever read it once, when for some reason I was left in some professor's office somewhere when I was a kid (I have no idea what the context for this was).

Sometimes ad men beings are incompetent. And I love enough obscure novels to feel this is regular. Some of them have become more famous with time: I think Janet Kagan and PC Hodgell are more well-known now than they were in the 90s. To this list of overlooked awesomeness I would add:

Authors who make my friends go 'Who?'
Broken Time by Maggy Thomas (aka Emily Devenport aka Lee Hogan, but I didn't get into her other books)
Varjak Paw by SF Said: An abandoned pet kitten learns martial arts through his dreams to fight evil shadow men who threaten cats; illustrated by Dave McKean.
The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders by Isidore Haiblum: spacetime-travelling Jewish mystic tangles with bureaucracy, intergalactic real estate scams, devils, and this sort of time-travelling James Bond guy.
The four sf novels of Doris Egan/Jane Emerson: amazing writing, Jane Austen sf before it was cool, political intrigue, love stories. Ignored partly b/c she stopped writing after book 1 of her multinovel epic series, due to health problems and getting a better-paying job.
The two fantasy novels of Peg Kerr: more amazing writing, mannerpunk, and managing to attach Grimm's Fairy Tales to the early part of the AIDS epidemic. Again, stopped writing due to getting a job that puts bread on the table.
Many sf/f novels by Sean Stewart: gripping plots full of character development and stuff that evokes emotions. Again, stopped writing sf/f due to being paid more for other stuff.
The three novels of Daryl Gregory: with a truly weird imagination, the only author I know who has put a possessed Philip K Dick in his book as a character.
Up Against by MJ Locke (aka Laura J Mixon): fast-paced hard sf thriller with cyberpunk aspects and an older female protagonist doing the plot parts that aren't a coming of age story. Just really, really *good*.
James Alan Gardner: really creative Canadian guy who wrote a very fun sf series starting with Expendable.

I think Laurie J Marks is a little more famous than she used to be too.

I am guessing the moral of history is that we should pay authors more and give them health insurance??
Feb. 11th, 2013 08:51 pm (UTC)
Dreamworks doesn't know how to market their movies. I wouldn't have gone to see HTTYD based on how they sold it alone. (I went to see it because I love animation and am a sucker for dragon movies.) They have this problem with all of their films, though, they marketed Megamind for example as a completely different film from what we actually got - and by and large, the real movie is much better than what they marketed it as.

In the case of HTTYD, the marketing was so bad that it had a dismal opening week, but the people that DID see it went home and told everyone about it - it got better press from word-of-mouth than it did from the actual marketing and it actually had a higher gross in the following weeks because of it. I'm glad it worked out that way, because the film was amazing and deserved it, but I hate that Dreamworks almost killed their own movie, and it was really saved by the fans.
Feb. 11th, 2013 02:52 pm (UTC)
I loved that movie a lot (less so the follow-up) and kept thinking that the animators had clearly studied cats, when they 'designed' Toothless, and the other dragons.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:21 pm (UTC)

We watch the TV show, and it's better than a fair amount of kids' programming, but definitely not as strong as the movie.
Feb. 11th, 2013 10:33 pm (UTC)
Horse trainers have said they also recognize bits of dragon-ness. Dog trainers less so just because dragons aren't quite so darn happy, but the partnership is a yes.
Feb. 11th, 2013 02:59 pm (UTC)
My son has Downs. This presents him a lot of problems and I'm not convinced he isn't very, very aware of these issues.

Movies like How to Train Your Dragon (or, Black Dragon, as my son calls it) make me hope that he won't feel so left out, that he won't feel so isolated away from his "typical" peers and that maybe, just maybe, they'll take that extra minute and let him get the words out, or they'll hang out with him while he's trying to keep up.

He loves this movie, and all the subsequent shorts that came after that (I particularly like "Gift of the Night Fury"). I love that he has a movie like this to love.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:00 pm (UTC)
Words cannot express how much I adore this movie! I am even watching the series on CN.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:01 pm (UTC)
This is one of those kid's movies that's so wonderful, I don't even mind when my kids want to watch it seventeen times a day.

Also, since the first time we saw it, I've been trying to convince my husband to let me get a Night Fury. For some reason, he keeps resisting.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:29 pm (UTC)
One of my great regrets in life is that I cannot use "Thanks for nothing, you stupid reptile" more often in everyday parlance. :)

I was SO SURPRISED by this movie! I had no idea about it at all, and went to see it by myself because I had nothing else to do. Then I dragged my brother and his wife back with me for a second round, because I needed someone to talk about it with.

And yes, it is excellent for all the reasons you mentioned (plus blink and you'll miss him David Tennant, using his real accent!). I also really enjoy the soundtrack.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:33 pm (UTC)
One of my great regrets in life is that I cannot use "Thanks for nothing, you stupid reptile" more often in everyday parlance. :)

I kept trying to find a way to work that line into this blog post :-)

Feb. 11th, 2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
He plays Fishleg's dad, so when the Grown-up Vikings all arrive on the dragon island, and Stoic says something, you can hear Tennant issuing orders in the background.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
Snotlout's dad, per the cartoon, in which he reprises the role. That surprised me, except that (thus far) it was just a one-off.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:32 pm (UTC)
I was 100% sure I had gotten the name wrong. :)

And I haven't watched more than five minutes of the cartoon, but I was very impressed by the number of the actual cast they got to participate! I plan to mainline it someday.
Feb. 11th, 2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
I love this movie for all these reasons too. And I am convinced that my cat, the late, great Foo, was a Night Fury :) (Except with an eye impairment).

I also love Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs - I thought it would be stupid, based on the title, but instead it's delightfully absurd and rather too true at the same time. </p>

I thought Monsters vs. Aliens was another surprisingly good one.

The good news about these undervalued movies is that they are really cheap on DVD :)

Feb. 11th, 2013 03:35 pm (UTC)
I agree with your assessment of the movie. I think it important to show the loss involved in something like the fight at the end, because things in the Viking village will never go back to the way they were before.

And the same goes for Hiccup, too. He has proven himself, saved the village (and other dragons), yet has sacrificed to do so. Sometimes the scars are obvious (the leg), and other times less so (PTSD in returning soldiers).
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 11th, 2013 04:08 pm (UTC)
Which Camelback? The Rim Runner?
Feb. 11th, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
I'm another person who didn't get drawn by the title and promos. Will definitely check it out now.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:33 pm (UTC)
I seem to recall reading that this movie was very uncharacteristic in that it climbed in the charts more than three weeks after its initial release date, because in those three weeks, word got out that it was an amazing movie. Then it got its run extended (at least in Canada).
Feb. 13th, 2013 01:40 pm (UTC)
It's a go-to film around here. Sean and I love it so much, for all the reasons Jim mentioned, but also because it depicts the movement of the animal-as-other to the animal-as-familiar. Hiccup says he couldn't kill toothless because he could identify with the dragon's fear, which we think is a great message, of course. =)

Let me know what you think when you watch it!
Feb. 11th, 2013 04:36 pm (UTC)
I thought this movie was incredibly cute, too, and it's so fantastic seeing disability handled in such a lovely way. :D
Feb. 11th, 2013 04:37 pm (UTC)
I loved this movie so very very much.
Feb. 11th, 2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
I luff luff luff HtTyD; so CUTE. Toothless is just a great big kitty-cat of a dragon.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:10 pm (UTC)
That's my favorite scene in the movie, the one that really put the whole thing from really good movie to fantastic movie. I love it so much.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:20 pm (UTC)
I also really enjoy the soundtrack.

omigod Yes! Scottish music with full orchestra. And the flight sequences are literally dizzying on the big screen.
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:31 pm (UTC)
Yes, wow, everything you said. I missed this in the theater, had my godchildren show it to me on DVD, and have been in love ever since. Looking forward to the sequel next year ...
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:33 pm (UTC)
Wait, SEQUEL???
Feb. 11th, 2013 08:53 pm (UTC)
Apparently, Dreamworks commissioned a whole series (six in total, I had heard).
I'm of two minds on that, but their Kung Fu Panda sequel was surprisingly good, so it has me optimistic.
Feb. 11th, 2013 08:55 pm (UTC)
Two sequels, actually, on next year and one in 2016, per a Dreamworks press release back in September.

Book author Cressida Cowell is reported here to have said that the films and books are going to share a conclusion, which made me perk up and start buying the books. :-)
Feb. 11th, 2013 05:45 pm (UTC)
The advertising for this movie was so bad that I made the conscious decision not to watch it. And then my dad* turned up to our weekly lunch date with a copy going "You. Must. Watch this." And I put it off for months, until I was dogsitting my friend's mother's dog over Christmas and I popped it in because the only way to get the dog to go outside ever was to just sit in the living room with the door open pretending I wasn't sitting there waiting for her to go outside and that the door just happened to be open, and no, I'm not freezing my ass off while you take hours to decide whether or not you have to pee today.

I think I watched it like three more times in the ensuing week in my quest to make sure everyone I knew actually watched it.

*My dad, who I had to practically bully into watching The Incredibles, is now the best gauge of whether or not a kids' movie is something I'll actually like.
Feb. 11th, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
I saw this movie when it came out in theatres with my partner and boyfriend of the time. All three of us are disabled; chronic pain caused by autoimmune disorders, among other things. The way the movie dealt with disability made me cry, because it was just so simple, elegant, and natural. It wasn't, as you see so often in media, inspiration porn; it just was. It is so very rare in any media depiction of disability that I came out of the theatre crying. It's amazing, and I am very much looking forward to the sequel that is supposed to be in the works.
Feb. 11th, 2013 10:40 pm (UTC)
I've gotten used to seeing advertising for animated films that implies I won't like it, and word of mouth telling me I will. (Bolt goes on the list as well) I've just about given up on seeing anything first week. (I ended up part of the second wave of theatre goers that raised its sales, and did my best to add more people in turn.) I'm so glad I have enough optimistic friends to keep getting that word of mouth, though...
Feb. 11th, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
The TV series and direct-to-DVD movies are also awesome.
Feb. 12th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)
I use the soundtrack for writing music.

And yes, I liked that bit.
Feb. 12th, 2013 02:31 am (UTC)
I loved the movie, it is one that 3D Imax made better--great flying scenes.

I also saw the live action show, which was surprisingly true to the movie (I haven't read the book), with large animatronic dragons wheeling around the covered ice rink, and dragons flying on tracks overhead, and fire and lasers and bubbles, and still a beautiful story.
Feb. 12th, 2013 02:51 pm (UTC)
Per the commenter above, I also had a cat who was a Night Fury. Uncannily so. I even blogged about it: http://blog.merriehaskell.com/and-now-for-a-brief-segue-into-dragons/
Feb. 12th, 2013 07:06 pm (UTC)
The hubby and I watched it in the theaters. I even polled my friends over FB to ask which movie with potentially lots of swooping camera and wide-angle shots we should use our meager entertainment budget to go see. (Most months, we can afford to see one movie. Usually, one movie stands out above the others as a must-see, but this was up against Iron Man 2.)

We laughed our proverbial butts off at how cat-like Toothless was.

I watched one episode of the cartoon series, and blew it off as the usual 30-minute artificial problem-solving. I felt the scriptwriter gave Hiccup a character flaw that he didn't have in the movie just for the plot hook.
Feb. 15th, 2013 04:44 am (UTC)
My four-year-old refers to Toothless as "kitty dragon." Probably because I used that term in front of him and it's SO TRUE.
Feb. 12th, 2013 07:16 pm (UTC)
It's a movie we all enjoyed. Much better than I expected it would be.
( 44 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines

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