Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The How to Train Your Dragon Series: A Well-Kept Secret

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

This review contains spoilers.

The How to Train Your Dragon animated trilogy – How to Train Your Dragon (2010), How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – have all been box-office hits, but critics have mostly ignored them, and I suspect that the only other adults who know about them discovered them along with their children. One colleague reported that when he sat down to watch the first one with his little boy, he was thoroughly delighted to find a treasure after all the animated crap he’d had to endure, and I imagine that many other parents have been similarly – and happily – caught off guard. I came to them through the good offices of one perspicacious critic, Michael Sragow, who praised the latest one, released a year ago, in his column in Film CommentOnce I saw the first one I was hooked. The forces behind them are the Young Adult author Cressida Cowell, who has written a dozen How to Train Your Dragon books, beginning in 2003, and Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed the first of the movies, with Chris Sanders, and went it alone on the two sequels.

The narrative is a bildungsroman that takes its hero, a Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel with a mix of sweetness, wry humor and sheer wonder) living on the island of Berk, from an awkward, curious teenhood to the position of chief of his community formerly held by his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler). On the way he finds love (in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrara), is reunited with his long-absent mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), and grieves for the loss of his complicated dad, whose machismo conceals a genuine romantic temperament. The first of the movies – my favorite – falls in the subgenre of coming-of-age movies in which the child protagonist, usually alienated from the conventional adult world, is guided to maturity through a relationship with an animal of magical beauty or speed: The Pie in National Velvet, Flag in The Yearling or, in the most unusual case, an extraterrestrial being in E.T. In How to Train Your Dragon, Berk lives under the continual threat of dragon attacks, and every boy and girl is trained in the art of dragon fighting. But Hiccup is hopelessly inept at the sport because his innate gentleness resists it, even though he knows that his failures humiliate his father the chief, whom the boy aches to please. (It should be said that Stoick is no tyrant; he’s stern yet patient and affectionate with Hiccup. The difficulties in their relationship derive from his inability to understand his son, not from his anger at him.) Nonetheless Hiccup doesn’t question the lifestyle of his fellow Berkians; he doesn’t realize at first that it goes against his grain. And he has a prodigious engineering gift. So because he can’t seem to fight dragons like everyone else, he constructs a flying trap to capture them and sends it after the first dragon he sees alone in the woods. Miraculously, it’s a Night Fury, the most terrifying of creatures and the most legendary, because its supernal speed makes it the most elusive. There’s no drawing of it in Hiccup’s dragon catalogue since no one has gotten close enough to one to reproduce it. But when his contraption succeeds in bringing the Night Fury down, Hiccup does – and what he sees, injured and helpless and frightened, shackled by his machine, alters his perspective forever. It’s a primal moment, like the Herdsman in Oedipus the King recalling that he couldn’t leave the infant Oedipus to be devoured by wild beasts on the mountain because he had pity or the German soldier who finds himself in a trench with a French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front and awakens to the truth that they’re the same, morphed stupidly into enemies by the false rhetoric of wartime. This scene in How to Train Your Dragon combines the emotions at the heart of both these classic examples. Hiccup loosens the Night Fury’s bonds and lets him go.

Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera) and Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon The Hidden World (2019).

At this point the film, which has already quoted King Kong and E.T., replicates, wittily and exquisitely, the pivotal scene in the greatest of all coming-of-age/animal movies, Carroll Ballard’s 1979 The Black Stallion. (Ballard also contributed two other pictures to this subgenre, Fly Away Home and Duma. They’re marvelous too.) In Ballard’s movie a boy, Alec, cuts the bonds of a wild Arabian horse during a fire at sea and the stallion reciprocates by carrying Alec, unconscious, to shore; they are the only survivors of the shipwreck, which claims the boy’s father. Alone on a desert island the boy and the horse become friends: in a sequence that is one of the true visual and emotional marvels in the history of filmmaking, the boy tames the horse, offering him a gift of food and winning his trust so that he allows Alec to touch his glistening mane and then, in a moment of transcendence, to ride him along the shore. Boy and horse become one; the spirit of camaraderie crashes triumphantly through the barrier between the two species. It’s that idea that drives the taming sequence in How to Train Your Dragon and that ultimately changes Hiccup’s community, when he proves to them that dragons are kind, loyal creatures who are only violent and aggressive when they have to protect themselves – or, it turns out, when they need to protect their human companions. Toothless and Hiccup become glorious co-dependents (it’s actually Hiccup who rigs a mechanical aid to teach Toothless to fly, just as the teenage heroine of Ballard’s Fly Away Home, played by Anna Paquin, teaches a family of orphaned baby geese how to fly). They even become mirror images of each other when Toothless loses a fin and then Hiccup loses a leg. The moving friendship between Hiccup and the Night Fury he names Toothless (because his teeth are retractable), but usually just calls Bud, becomes the model for the relationships between these enchanted creatures and humans throughout Berk.

Both the subsequent films in the series revolve around threats to the peaceful co-existence of dragons and humans, which is the state of things in Berk by the time How to Train Your Dragon 2 begins. In this sequel Hiccup and his friends have to battle Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a fearful dragon hunter who has managed to control an alpha dragon so that all the dragons in thrall to it behave like monsters – even, for a time, Toothless, until Hiccup is able to rouse him to himself. This is the movie in which Hiccup meets a mysterious dragon caregiver on another island who turns out to be his mother Valka; in which Valka and Stoick are reunited; and in which Stoick dies. (Blanchett and especially Butler bring a highly unusual romantic quality to their scenes, where Valka’s wisdom and devotion – it turns out that she has stayed away from her family because she felt that her refusal to see dragons as natural enemies was putting her husband and her baby son in danger – draw out Stoick’s courtly, honeyed side.) The villain of The Hidden World is Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), hired by Viking warlords to who want to wipe out the entire species of dragons. Grimmel tries to use a female Night Fury (a “Light Fury,” so called by Hiccup and Astrid because her pure white hide contrasts Toothless’s shiny black one) as bait to capture the enamored Toothless, who, at the end of 2 became the new, benevolent alpha. The title refers to a dragon’s paradise that Hiccup and Astrid find when they follow Toothless and his beloved Light Fury past the limits of civilization – and to which Hiccup releases his dragon friend, along with all his breed, at the end until such time as humans and dragons can live together peaceably.

These movies are funny, inventive both narratively and visually, and beautiful to look at. Cowell’s storyline, with its endless variety of dragons, has liberated the animators to dream up a crew of magnificent creatures that cover a range of sizes and shapes and a rainbow palette. (There’s even a two-headed dragon that can comfortably seat a pair of riders.) Except for America Ferrara, who has the unfortunate pallid feistiness of most Disney cartoon heroines, the voice actors are first-rate. (They include Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Craig Ferguson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller – replaced in The Hidden World by Justin Rupple – and Kit Herington.) The champion production designers are Kathy Altieri (for the first movie) and Pierre-Olivier Vincent (for both sequels). The de facto DP on all three is Gil Zimmerman (listed as head of layout), but both 2 and The Hidden World carry a credit to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins as visual consultant. If you want to produce visual work of this caliber, it makes sense to consult a master. It’s my view that Dean DeBlois has already attained that distinction.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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