I was getting my son ready for bed. He’s three-years-old. He can put his pyjamas on by himself. I think that’s pretty cool. Occasionally he screws things up; puts a t-shirt on upside down, puts his undies on back-to-front.
One day, I tried to correct him. I was certain he’d put his pyjama bottoms on the wrong way round, but he hadn’t. He’d done it properly. “Whoops,” I told him. “You were right.”
Then my son said something. He said: “You were wrong and I was right. Sometimes Daddy is wrong.”
Little shit. Where the hell did that come from?
Then I remembered: I’d said that before. My son was repeating my own words back at me.
We’d been watching How To Train Your Dragon. A pivotal scene. Hiccup’s Father -- a strong, powerful Viking leader – had just made a terrible mistake. Instead of listening to his son’s advice, he overruled him thoughtlessly. That decision had led to catastrophe and the potential for death and destruction on a massive scale. Only now, in that moment, had he realised his mistake: his inability to trust his own son’s instincts. His inability to accept his son’s true self.
“Hiccup,” he says, looking up. “I’m sorry. For everything.”
It’s a powerful scene. A powerful moment. The culmination of a perfectly defined relationship. Beautiful and simple. Efficient and real. It encapsulates everything good about How To Train Your Dragon.
I remember that moment. I remember me, face like a leaking beet-red scrunchie, looking down at my three-year-old son. I said something I didn’t expect him to fully understand at the time. I said, “sometimes Daddy is wrong.”
When people discuss their favourite animated movies the conversation tends to go down predictable routes. Pixar is referenced en-route to Ghibli. They talk Toy Story, The Incredibles gets mentioned. The Up montage is referenced, “but the third act ruins it”. Someone mentions Totoro. Someone else nods in appreciation -- “but Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s real masterpiece”.
Some smart bastard might mention Wolf Children, because yes – it’s incredible. Another clever clogs hits a curve-ball with the under-appreciated Iron Giant movie.
But no-one ever mentions How To Train Your Dragon.
It’s understandable. How To Train Your Dragon: a Dreamworks production. Dreamworks movies have a terrible strike-rate. They’re mostly known for making movies about talking animals making a face like this.
How To Train Your Dragon sounds like a YouTube tutorial. It sounds like a LifeHacker article. It doesn’t sound like the best animated movie ever made, which is a shame because – in my opinion – that’s precisely what it is.
How To Train Your Dragon is a movie about a boy and his pet. It’s also a movie about parenthood and inter-generational battles. It’s a movie about bigotry. It’s a movie about dooming your children to a war they never started. It’s a movie about the follies of denying young people their own voice. It’s a coming-of-age story, a movie about discovering your own sense of self and developing the confidence to express it.
And it’s a movie that juggles these multiple, argy-bargy themes like it ain’t-no-thang and filters them effortlessly into a three act structure so seamless that barely a frame is wasted. It’s lean. It’s delicate. It has flair without indulgence. How To Train Your Dragon is, for my money, close to flawless.
“Our parents' war is about to become ours! Figure out which side you're on.”
How To Train Your Dragon is a movie about bigotry.
At the beginning of How To Train Your Dragon, the protagonist Hiccup is desperate to kill a dragon. Vikings are perennially at war with dragons. Dragons that are constantly destroying the livestock, their homes. Dragons that are killing men, women and children with terrifying regularity.
The dragons in How To Train Your Dragon could substitute for any faceless opponent in any conflict. That metaphor works. They exist as enemies to be slaughtered at any cost, without consideration, without mercy. It is a war Viking children are expected to continue without question. They help adults fight and, later, are trained to kill Dragons from adolescence.
Hiccup is different. In secret he attempts to kill a dragon and earn the respect of his peers he injures a dragon, to the point where it cannot fly – but he cannot finish the job. He cannot kill it. Instead he befriends the dragon, fixes its broken tail, and ‘trains’ it. They become a team. Later Hiccup says, “he looked as frightened as I was”.
The children in How To Train Your Dragon are interesting. The parents, the older generation, all speak with broad, aggressive Scottish accents, but the kids speak with the kind of interchangeable American twang you’d expect from any animated movie produced in Hollywood. Of course this has marketing implications, and many see it as a flaw in the movie’s internal logic, but it’s also symbolic. It reminds you: these children are different from their parents. They speak a different language, they think differently.
In its own way How To Train Your Dragon is a biting allegory about what happens when two different cultures collide. The younger generation is more forgiving. They imitate their parent’s language, but slowly discover their own voice. In Brexit terms, they vote 75% to remain. The older generation flat-out refuses to negotiate, or even comprehend the idea that dragons are anything other than sociopathic devils that need to be put in the ground.
The children are different.
“They've killed hundreds of us,” says Hiccup’s father, in complete disbelief, after discovering his son had been keeping a pet Dragon.
Hiccup, screaming in reply:
“And we’ve killed thousands of them!”
Later, the older Vikings -- fighting a futile war on the ground with potential allies in the Dragons -- look up in the sky and see their children in the sky, riding them. It’s an incredible image, a powerful metaphor. Put aside your differences, understand one another. Fly to new heights.
Hiccup’s father, seconds before his son rides off -- with his Dragon -- to fix the mistakes of an older generation: “I’m sorry. For everything.”
Sometimes Daddies are wrong.
It’s all anchored by the relationship between Hiccup, the protagonist and Toothless, the dragon.
First and foremost How To Train Your Dragon is a movie about friendship.
In the first act – the very first scene actually – Hiccup injures Toothless the dragon. He damages his tail, affecting his centre of gravity to the point where he cannot fly. At first he attempts to kill him (“this fixes everything,” he cries when he stumbles across the downed dragon) but of course, he can’t. He sets Toothless free and thus begins a feeling out process between the two characters. It’s deftly scripted and shot -- mostly dialogue free. Toothless moves like a cat. He’s endearing. A paradox: clumsy and agile. A living, breathing YouTube video. Hiccup’s attempts to gain the trust of Toothless is touching and comedic. There’s a delicate chemistry to it.
The second act of How To Train Your Dragon focuses on this relationship, and contrasts sharply against Hiccup’s Viking training. There, Hiccup and his friends are taught how to fight – and ultimately kill – dragons. There’s a beautiful sequence where we watch this intertwine seamlessly in tandem -- where the lessons learned from befriending Toothless grant him an almost supernatural ability to subdue wild dragons without force. Hiccup goes from waste-of-space buffoon to dragon-master within the space of a single montage. It’s reflective of a clumsy adolescent in the process of defining himself against type. Hiccup defies the macho violence of other Vikings and replaces it with something more subtle and fluid.
And it culminates, like it should, in an act of rebellion.
As a result of his friendship with Toothless, Hiccup easily tops his class in dragon training. His reward: the chance to kill his first dragon in front of the entire village. His father watches on proudly. Hiccup approaches the dragon, he casts his weapons and armour aside.
“It’s okay,” he says, in an attempt to calm the wild dragon, “I’m not one of them.”
Hiccup’s father, enraged at what he sees, screams at the top of his lungs and slams his axe loudly, startling the dragon, who reacts violently. All hell breaks loose. Toothless is found and captured. Dragons and Vikings are at war all over again. Hiccup’s new, dissenting voice is silenced. The children are left home while the adults set sail to kill dragons where they sleep and the generation gap is wider than ever.
And then comes the chaos, then comes the carnage. Then comes the realisation: the dragons were merely acting on the behalf of a brutal dictator dragon.
Then comes that generation gap, in visual form. Teenagers flying overhead, on dragons, while the adult fight a pointless war in the muck.
It ends with an apology and a final climactic battle.
Together Hiccup and Toothless take on the humongous ‘Alpha’ Dragon. With teamwork, speed and skill, the pair manage to kill the dictator. As it plummets towards death, both Hiccup and Toothless are hit. Before they hit the floor Toothless manages to wrap Hiccup in his wings.
He is unconscious, but safe.
“Thank you,” says Hiccup’s father, “for saving my son.”
“Well,” another Viking pipes up, “most of him.”
How To Train Your Dragon’s ending is a master stroke, and inspired debate behind the scenes. The film was supposed to end, like most children’s movies, with the hero emerging unscathed from battle, but the directors made a change. Hiccup is knocked unconscious. He awakes, safe in his home. He tries to stand up but can’t. And that’s when it becomes clear: Hiccup has lost his left leg.
There’s a lot to be said for the choices the directors didn’t make.
Originally, Hiccup was supposed to wake up, alone. He was supposed to discover that he had lost his left leg, alone. He was supposed to deal with that fact, alone. But Steven Spielberg, after seeing the original the ending, said something interesting. He worried that, in the third act of How To Train Your Dragon, the interactions between Hiccup and Toothless had been reduced to that of a cowboy and his horse.
The scene was changed. The final version: Toothless sees Hiccup struggling to stand with one leg, and quickly rushes to his aid, helping him to stand up straight. As they walk out in tandem Hiccup’s leg and Toothless’ damaged tail are side-by-side.
How To Train Your Dragon is not my son’s favourite animated movie. It comes a fairly distant second to Planes: Fire and Rescue, a movie I’ve watched more times than I care to admit.
He hasn’t learned much from Planes: Fire and Rescue, but How to Train Your Dragon has already taught him at least one valuable lesson: it taught him his Daddy is sometimes wrong.
But perhaps more importantly, it taught me not to underestimate my own children.
In How To Train Your Dragon Hiccup awakes to a new paradigm. Vikings and Dragons co-existing in a symbiotic relationship.
“So what do you think?” Asks Hiccup’s father, asking his opinion of something for the first time in the movie.
Hiccup is speechless.
“Turns out all we need was was a little more of… this,” Hiccup’s father adds, pointing towards his own son.
“You just gestured to all of me,” replies Hiccup.
And for a moment, the generation gap feels imperceptible. Almost like it doesn’t exist at all.