Review of How to Train Your Dragon
April 16, 2010
Children’s movies, especially those meant for small children, tell more about a society and their values than any other film genre. The emotional reaction of parents to any product directed at children forces kids’ movies to be completely non-offensive to the delicate sensibilities of an oversensitive PTA mother or bible thumping father. Basic morality or standards of behavior have to be boiled until sterile, clean, and untainted by controversial influences. Imagine my surprise then, in this time of prideful ignorance, when I watched How to Train Your Dragon, which encourages kids to disobey their parents, ignore their unfounded beliefs, explore the world, find the truth for themselves, and apply the scientific method (sort of).
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a small, awkward young boy who doesn’t have the prowess for fighting, especially for fighting dragons. His combat incompetence is especially daunting as he has to stand in the shadow of his father Stoick, the leader of the Viking community and legendary fighter. The other Viking children tease Hiccup mercilessly. He isn’t allowed to fight during dragon attacks; he is relegated to making and maintaining weapons. It is during one of these attacks that he takes an opportunity to study the dragons and learn about their nature. What he finds refutes the texts on dragons and makes him an outsider. By sticking to what he knows, and applying the fundamentals of science, he changes his standing in his community.
In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup wants to learn about the dragon, which is a no-no in his village. Dragons are for slaying. Dragons are dangerous, and that’s all anyone need know, as far as these Vikings are concerned. Hiccup’s experiences make him not so easily convinced. He observes, tests, experiments, takes notes, and continues to investigate to find the truth. He does this in the face of generations of convention, while experiencing the full compressive power of societal pressure, and still, he finds the truth. Moreover, he uses the truth to help everyone, not just for his own benefit.
Everyone has had those painful moments when they’ve felt like they don’t fit in. I sure have. Being a social animal built for communal living means that we long to belong, even if it means being untrue to ourselves sometimes. How to Train Your Dragon reminds us that fitting in at the expense of being ourselves doesn’t make us stop being square pegs, it just means we’ve shaved bits of ourselves off to make an unrecognizable shape. Sometimes we have to show the hole why it should have a few corners.
How to Train Your Dragon’s animation is not hyper-realistic but instead offers the audience the whimsy of being in a slightly different reality; whimsy it has in droves. The characters, which are larger (or smaller) than life, suck the viewer in, leaving them helpless to resist their draw.
Uncontrolled giggles and adorable characters aside, the truly remarkable aspect of How to Train Your Dragon is that it encourages children to use their minds, learn about things before they draw conclusions, and ignore the warnings of unfounded books.
Skeptics and scientists openly lament the willful ignorance of antiscientific rhetoric that seems to plague the world today. Children around the world are being brought up in communities that reject vaccines because they are terrorized by unseen dangers, wait for their gods to fix ecological disasters or ignore that such disasters exist at all, teach them that the earth was made just for them, and make them live in constant danger of being burned as a witch. In America, religious fundamentalists wear their scientific ignorance as a badge of honor. They attack movies and books that depict characters using the wrong kind of magic while thumbing their noses at scientific evidence that disproves their flavor of mysticism. Anti-evolution, pro-creationism school districts pepper the Bible belt beyond all palatability. The war between science and religious dogma is most ferociously fought for the minds of children.
How to Train Your Dragon takes on one of the most controversial, offensive, and indelicate matters that the world must face today. It smacks in the face of all cinematic convention and yet, there it is—a movie for children that demands that they think for themselves, even if they have to buck the beliefs of their parents. There’s no hullabaloo, no malicious protests, nothing but appreciation for a good story with a good message.
Maybe, even as we fight to keep science in science class, keep our children healthy, stop the killings based on religion, and struggle to stop obstinate ignorance, the idea that we should think for ourselves and examine things to find the truth is as easy to swallow as coming of age for our society. Maybe we haven’t gotten to the stage where challenging metaphysical thinking is acceptable, but we seem to be chipping away at it a little.
How to Train Your Dragon is a humorous, charming story of overcoming fear, coming of age, and fitting in. The animation is engaging, even to those who have been nearly overdosed by Saturday morning cartoons. Parents don’t have to worry about feeling like they’ve wasted two precious hours in overly sweetened child-focused misery because the story is sure to draw in even the most animation-hardened adult. I suspect even adults without children will enjoy How to Train Your Dragon; I did. More importantly, the American children who watch it might just have the seed of skepticism planted in their brain, hopefully to be watered by their education.