Kids' Movies III

film 4 of 5

How to Train Your Dragon

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

Firstly, why are these Vikings speaking with Scots accents? Some things we’ll never know, I guess.

There’s some healthy gender discourse lurking around here, slightly or indirectly relating to sexuality, but having more to do with allowing for a greater range of male/female being. This is effectively explored because the filmmakers ultimately have a lot of sympathy for their gender-normative/gender-extreme characters, for their knuckleheaded boys and catty girls. That’s another healthy thing about this movie. There’s plenty of knockabout, and some caricature to fuel it. But in the end it’s inhabited by a gentle spirit. In this it looks back, whether they’re thinking of the sources or not. There’s a bit of Anne Shirley, a bit of Huck Finn (again), a bit of Budd Boetticher, all in the following, respective ways: the good child raises the entire community up, perceptions and people get more complex as the more you learn about them, or the more the narrative progresses. Also, everyone has his reasons.  

The gentleness is remarkable, since this is also very clearly, and very effectively, a war film, as well as being a parable for the political generally. Here are the Afghan and Iraq wars, as well, in a more timeless, mytho-archetypal way, Crusades generally. As we consider that mythological material, we also get a glimpse at some hard contemporary truths. When you always antagonize the other, the other can’t help but be transformed by your antagonism. Even brutalization and brutality have their reasons! But we can’t leave it, we can’t leave them at that, can we? Starting with our protagonist’s remarkable rapprochement with this fantastic Night Fury dragon (cf. Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion!), the kids see how this might be addressed, even reversed.  

The peacemaking started with the Viking kids themselves; soon everyone—except maybe the parents—is seeing unsuspected possibilities in the other.  (Also, there’s real subtlety to this little romance. Strange to say, but it’s kind of like Redford’s Ordinary People!) 

How to Train Your Dragon is gentle, but not mushy, or soft-headed. The superb climax brings us face to face with the implacable foe (let’s say, for instance, the jihadist components of militant Islam), who can’t be reasoned with, nor appeased or ignored. They’ve given us slapstick, and inspiring Sunday School sermons, but now its time for melodrama, and the violent resolution of story and character conflicts. The thing is, they’ve earned it; this is not the noisy, wearisome kid film run of the mill, where you get roller coasters instead of proper resolution. In other words, there’s myth in this melodrama. St. George and the Dragon! By rights our protagonist should have died, and his mount too. Of course you can’t do that with a kids’ movie. So to everyone’s credit they do maim him, and by so doing generate a bit of bonus didacticism. Physical infirmities come from somewhere too; never judge because of a disability. Altogether, this movie is a very felicitous combination of good things.