On March 26th 2010, the world was introduced to the heart-warming relationship between young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and the adorable dragon Toothless on the wonderful Isle of Berk. Adapted from Cressida Cowell’s beloved series of children’s books, How to Train Your Dragon was a massive hit at the box office and with critics, which helped pave the way for two sequels to complete the trilogy. Ten years later the film isn’t just revered within the pantheon of Dreamworks animated features but is regarded as a modern animated classic. What is it about How to Train Your Dragon that makes it so fondly remembered even today? Of course the animation should be celebrated, especially those spectacular flying sequences, and the vocal performances are great, but like any feature film, it is the story that resonates the loudest.
Animated features have a slightly different production process compared to live-action projects. Most animation studios will have every single department involved from day one, editors included. With How to Train Your Dragon however, the project was kickstarted by producer Bonnie Arnold, with early script drafts written by Will Davies. It wasn’t until deep into development that Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders stepped in as the new writers and directors of the project. Their most well-known project at that point was Lilo & Stitch (2002) but the pair had experience working together on stories in the House of Mouse prior to their 2002 hit. DeBlois and Sanders drastically changed story details, so much so that the only similarities between the book and the film are key characters and the title. As writers, the pair spent time beating out the story over numerous drafts, crafting their own story in the world that Cowell had created whilst still keeping true to the heart of the books: the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless.
On the surface How to Train Your Dragon has quite a stereotypical story structure: it fits easily into the Hero’s Journey template and makes the audience aware of the film’s themes and messages early on in page fourteen.
The message is pretty on-the-nose but it makes it clear to the audience what story DeBlois and Sanders wants to tell with its protagonist: a young teenager, who strives to become a fearsome Viking, learns to overcome hurdles with his strengths in intelligence and empathy. The film seems like the generic story of an awkward outsider who teaches society a new perspective on matters but it is still a relevant and relatable story for many. It is the setting and the world that makes How to Train Your Dragon interesting. The story structure also pretty much hits each mark spot on: with Hiccup’s and Toothless’ first touch signalling the end of act one on page 39, their first successful flight together happening at the midpoint on page 54 and the end of the act three, climaxing with the main antagonist defeated , on page 99.
On the topic of relatable storytelling, the writers purposefully decided to set the story before the timeline of the main book series to explore the conflict between Vikings and dragons. This serves as a true origin story, not just for the characters but the world of Berk too. The conflict between the two species raises the stakes of the narrative but also stands parallel to real-world issues. Vikings in Berk seem to have the sole purpose of slaying dragons, with a rite of passage centred around the killing of a dragon. Hiccup, however, learns that dragons aren’t so much the terrifying creatures Vikings make them out to be; they simply haven’t taken the time to understand them.
The story is, on its simplest level, about racism; more relevant than ever in Trump’s America, where xenophobic ideology is passed on to the masses by powerful figures. In the context of a film aimed primarily at young audiences, there are particular moments in the script that push this narrative forward and hammer home certain messages.
Within Berk the fear of dragons is clearly passed on from generation to generation and taught to children. Astrid (America Ferrera) places additional pressure on Hiccup with a sort of ultimatum: you’re either with them or us. Hate is usually learnt from previous generations, be it our parents here or in Berk. It is so ingrained into Astrid that she forces that mindset onto Hiccup. Of course Hiccup doesn’t give in to hatred and instead takes the time to learn about dragons.
Hiccup’s arc is used to critique those who refuse to change and learn whilst hopefully delivering an optimistic lesson. We find Hiccup at the start of the film wanting to become a Viking and adamant that he will kill a dragon to prove his worth. When given the opportunity he doesn’t just let Toothless go but actively aids the dragon, eventually forming a close bond with each other. Hiccup’s curiosity and empathy leads him to this moment of realisation: that the dragons are not what the Vikings perceive them as. Unfortunately it isn’t an easy task persuading everyone else.
Hiccup attempts to convince his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) that dragons aren’t all dangerous creatures and that, in fact, the Vikings have killed more of their kind. Stoick doesn’t see the deaths caused by his tribe but only sees the casualties he has incurred. It is during the epic final battle against The Red Death that Stoick’s character arc concludes in a way that complements the film’s themes. Stoick isn’t an all-out villain but an antagonist to Hiccup’s ideologies: enforcing fear and hate for dragons whilst refusing to learn about them. Watching the young Vikings working together with other dragons to take down The Red Death opens Stoick’s eyes to what he previously refused to see. Hiccup’s character arc of bonding with Toothless pushes Stoick’s character to finally see the opportunities of trusting dragons, as well as his own son.
What helps complete the story is the bittersweet loss at the film’s climax. Hiccup loses his leg during the battle with The Red Death and ends up with a prosthetic replacement; this loss however becomes a strength for Hiccup.
With Toothless having a missing tail fin and Hiccup missing a leg, together with their prosthetics they become one. Their physical bond reflects the emotional bond they share. Despite loss on both sides, together they become so much more. The message is that if people in our world learn to understand each other like the Vikings and dragons of Berk, maybe we could become greater too.
How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderful action adventure which made the world fall in love with Toothless but thanks to DeBlois’ and Sanders’ script we care about the whole cast and the story being told. Ten years on the film is still popular for its entertaining story whilst remaining relevant in its themes; most of all teaching us to be more understanding and empathetic towards others. DeBlois did an incredible job building on the same themes and ideas in the two sequels but the film that started it all will always have a special spot in a lot of people’s hearts thanks to its strong script.
The script can be found at: http://www.mzp-tv.co.uk/movie_scripts/Childrens/2010-02-13%20-%20How%20to%20Train%20Your%20Dragon.pdf