If there was ever a film genre where a new entry could be easily phoned in, it's children's animated films. When so much blood, sweat and tears is (usually) being poured into rendering each and every frame, it would be easy to scrap together a cliché, predictable script, attach some stars providing voices to draw in a large crowd, and call it a day. This formula, which may work in driving box office numbers, is not always a recipe for classic status, as numerous 2010s animations can attest to.
'How to Train Your Dragon', which celebrates its 10th anniversary, is no such animated film.
Based on a novel by Cressida Cowell, 'How to Train Your Dragon' tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, 'This Is The End'), a scrawny Viking teenager lacking the brutal, anti-dragon spirit adopted by his father, chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, 'Olympus Has Fallen' franchise, 'Geostorm'), and his home of Berk. Determined to prove himself to his father and to his peers, who are already undertaking dragon fighting lessons, Hiccup accidentally traps a Night Fury, considered one of the most dangerous and mysterious dragons in the land. Having accidentally injured the Night Fury with his trap, the compassionate Hiccup builds a prosthetic tail fin to help the dragon fly again rather than killing him in Berk tradition, naming the dragon Toothless and befriending him in the process.
What's so refreshing about 'How to Train Your Dragon' is how it tackles the common tropes of animated children's films. A major crutch of Disney films is the animal sidekick, who is not a dog yet adopts all the characteristics of a dog (see: Max from 'Tangled'), a surefire way to elicit laughs from younger audiences. Here, DreamWorks take that trope and breathe life into it; Toothless certainly has the large puppy eyes and loves playing fetch, neither of which feel forced, but his design often resembles that of a cat, how he can go from a clumsy baby with perked ears to sleek attack mode in a second (the internet is littered with comparisons of real-life black cats to Toothless). What's also refreshing about Toothless is that he doesn't speak. It would have been easy to lean into the suspension of disbelief animated films allow and given Toothless a voice, but in choosing to keep one of its lead characters mute, 'How to Train Your Dragon' comes off as that much more mature. This is a story of two individuals divided by species, prejudice, and language, learning to understand and respect each other - no doubt an incredibly important lesson in acceptance and respect for younger kids. By its epic climax, you truly believe the love between Toothless and Hiccup, because the film takes its time developing it and making it feel authentic. It's the rare on-screen bond that audiences craved more of, with the film bringing in half a billion dollars worldwide and spawning two sequels, a television series, graphic novels and numerous short films.
The language barrier seen between Hiccup and Toothless can be extended to the larger coming of age story that provides the framework for the entire 'How to Train Your Dragon' series. The film boasts a supporting cast of comedic actors including Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, all of whom play Hiccup's peers - and all of whom are using American accents, despite the older residents of Berk, including Stoik, having thick Scottish accents. This helps to further signify the wedge in understanding between Hiccup and his father, and the notion that they are speaking different languages adds another dimension to their struggling relationship. This is no doubt a result of the major retooling the film underwent during its production, with DreamWorks steering the plot away from the younger target audience of its source material and to more mature ideas such as family relationships, identity and loss. This also set the narrative potential for the sequels; the first instalment in the series does not feature any major deaths, but the decision to leave Hiccup without a leg by the final act indicated that the series was willing to play with its stakes. By fast-forwarding five years for the second film and Hiccup now at the age of 20, DreamWorks kept challenging themselves to grow the series thematically with its characters. Whether or not this was DreamWorks' intent, this signalled a new age for the studio, who had previously cut their teeth with dancing animals and pop culture references. With 'How to Train Your Dragon', DreamWorks proved they could hold their own against Disney and make complex films that could be respected and appreciated by everyone, regardless of age.
With 'How to Train Your Dragon', DreamWorks proved they could hold their own against Disney and make complex films that could be respected and appreciated by everyone, regardless of age.
Of course, it's impossible to discuss 'How to Train Your Dragon' without touching on its animation. Having legend Roger Deakins on board as a visual consultant is no doubt to credit for the breathtaking cinematography, using 3D animation to create lifelike landscapes which, on a first watch, left me double-taking, initially thinking Toothless and Hiccup had just been superimposed over a real-life image. The attention to detail is stunning, and there is not a single frame of this film that doesn't bleed with love, passion and pure talent from its animating team.
If you're looking for quality films to entertain your children that you'll also enjoy, look no further than 'How to Train Your Dragon'. It manages to craft the beginning of what is one of the most heartfelt and inspired coming-of-age tales in recent years, boasting incredible set pieces, a driving score and a strong emotional core.