When the first trailer for How to Train Your Dragon appeared in late 2009, nothing suggested that, nearly 10 years later, an elegiac, third entry would close the loop on a story of idealism, loss, and getting older in the midst of tumultuous times.
Not that there wasn’t promise. From the start, the film looked like a departure from DreamWorks Animation’s usual creatures-with-attitude vehicles like the Shrek series and Shark Tale (an approach that found a little more emotional depth with 2008’s Kung Fu Panda). But maybe not that much of a departure; the trailer had a statelier tone, but there was always the chance that the dragons could end up dancing to a Smash Mouth song. This was DreamWorks Animation, after all, and the studio hadn’t yet shown much inclination to veer out of its lane with its in-house productions. Pixar and Disney brought the heart. DreamWorks brought animated bees with arched eyebrows and a never-ending supply of wisecracks.
How to Train Your Dragon changed that, even if transcendence wasn’t always the plan. Dreamworks retooled the adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s book series mid-production after fearing that story skewed too young and had lost a handle on the father-and-son tale that was supposed to be at its core.
“[The theme] was buried under mysticism and prophecies and Nordic legends,” Dean DeBlois says in the documentary The Making of How to Train Your Dragon: Finding the Story. That left DeBlois and his partner Chris Sanders, with whom he’d co-written and co-directed Lilo & Stitch, to find it.
The relationship between the teenaged Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his chieftain father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) gives How to Train Your Dragon, and its sequels, their heart. (Even though, spoiler warning, Stoick dies midway through How to Train Your Dragon 2). As his name suggests, Stoick is commanding and distant. He loves the son he’s raised alone after the (apparent) death of his wife Valka at the hands of one of the dragons that torment their seaside settlement of Berk. But he doesn’t understand him.
Hiccup is small of muscle but big in imagination — a quality unlikely to serve him well in Berk’s kill-or-be-killed struggle with dragons. The boy does his best, crafting instruments of destruction to aid the fight, but a downed Night Fury dragon he names Toothless helps him realize that the fight isn’t necessary at all and that peaceful coexistence might be possible with a little understanding.
Though it’s odd that the Vikings have Scottish accents — the Scotland-born Butler and co-star Craig Ferguson keep it natural — the choice speaks to one of the series’ central themes. Stoick and his generation practically speak a different language than their children. The younger actors make no attempt at a brogue, their voices ranging from Baruchel’s nasal inflections to America Ferrara as Hiccup’s tough friend and love interest Astrid, to a supporting cast of improv veterans who deliver the wisecracks that keep the film partly grounded in the DreamWorks tradition (Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and T.J. Miller — though Miller has been replaced by Justin Rupple in the third movie after some ugly allegations came to light).
Much of How to Train Your Dragon’s drama hinges on Hiccup’s need to convince his father that he and his generation have been wrong about dragons. By extension, his father has also been wrong about him; everything that made Hiccup seem like a misfit is also what makes him special and able to see things differently.
It’s a wonderfully open-ended metaphor for the rifts that find their way into father-son relationships. Hiccup and Stoick’s difficulties can stand in for any number of differences beyond a sense that it’s impossible to live up to parental expectations: career expectations, political viewpoints, sexual orientation, and so on. The moments in which Hiccup and Stoick attempt to talk to each other, but end up talking over each other, feel painfully real, even for those who’ve never picked up a wooden shield or carved a pike out of driftwood.
The first film ends with the rift healed. The older Berkians see the error of their ways. The bond between Hiccup and Toothless promises to be the first of many strong relationships between Vikings and dragons. And a brighter tomorrow beckons. The story could have ended there, and satisfyingly so. Instead, the series has become the rare coming-of-age story that treats growing up as an ongoing process and recognizes that sometimes our relationship with our parents gets more complex over time, even after they’re gone.
DeBlois, who took over writing and directing duties after Sanders left to work on 2013’s The Croods, didn’t have to look far for inspiration. He lost his own father at 19 and, as he told The Hollywood Reporter upon the 2014 release of How to Train Your Dragon 2, he “wanted the movie to be a tribute to parents, particularly those who some of us lost early.”
The film opens five years after the end of the first movie, and though Berk has become a virtual utopia in which Vikings and dragons live in productive harmony, it’s not enough for Stoick, who frets about his son’s fitness for leadership and questions the wisdom of his attempt to make the ruthless dragon hunter Drago (Djimon Hounsou) see the error of his ways.
The full scope of the series’ ambition comes into focus with with How to Train Your Dragon 2. That’s true on the technical level: While original looks terrific, thanks no doubt in part to the consulting work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s contributed to all three, the sequel finds DeBlois toying with painterly compositions and remarkable lighting effects, creating backdrops filled with swirling mists, action scenes ablaze with dragon fire, and gorgeous magic hour sunsets. (By the third, comparisons to Hudson River School landscapes and J.M.W. Turner don’t seem ridiculously out of line.)
It’s also true on the thematic level. The parental drama, further complicated by the unexpected return of Hiccup’s mother (voiced by Cate Blanchett), takes a shocking turn with Stoick’s death, which leaves Hiccup struggling with the sudden silence of the one voice that’s always guided him — even if it sometimes misguided him. (The death scene, bloodlessly kid-appropriate, is also one of the most upsetting moments to appear in a film for children since Mufasa’s plunge in The Lion King.)
The sequel also complicates the relationship between humans and dragons. Where the Berkians once sought only to kill the dragons, Drago controls dragons by force. DeBlois has cited Hayao Miyazaki as an inspiration for the series, which is particularly evident in Dragons 2, with the way humans treat dragons standing in for how humans treat the Earth — and how the Earth might respond in kind. The film also matches its thematic concerns with design work. The film is filled with inventive, winningly rendered dragons. Toothless, for instance, combines the most appealing elements of a cat, a dog, and a horse. But the gargantuan alpha dragons have an otherworldly quality. Like the River Spirit of Spirited Away or Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro, they seem at once like individual creatures and representatives of forces older than human understanding. The How to Train Your Dragon films tell the a story of a boy and his dragon but there are bigger stories resting on top of it.
That includes an interest in how stories end. Without giving too much away — though the film’s wistful trailer, featuring an older Hiccup and Astrid shows more than it probably should — How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a movie about what we can’t hold onto, how eras pass, and how golden ages fade into legend. In the year since the events of the preceding film, Berk has thrived under Hiccup’s leadership, but trouble persists in the form of dragon hunters led by Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, adding another sneering baddie to his gallery of rogues), a man determined to wipe out the dragons and adept at drugging the ones in his command into hunting their own kind.
DeBlois wastes little time establishing Grimmel as an existential threat, one that may force the Berkians to uproot. But there’s another threat: a female dragon of Toothless’ breed who draws him toward the Hidden World, a place where dragons live in safety apart from humans. The film makes clear this is where Toothless and the other dragons must ultimately return, interspersing the action with occasional flashbacks to Hiccup’s father telling him of the Hidden World as a child. And with these flashbacks the idea of a “hidden world,” a paradise to be imagined but not visited by living humans, takes on yet another meaning.
The peace that Hiccup has brought to Berk and the dragons has been wonderful — a utopia even, as it’s called at one point. But it might also be too good to last in the world we know. Suddenly, the series’ dragons take on yet another meaning. Like the guidance of parents and the untested idealism of youth, adulthood requires the characters to leave them behind.
It’s a bittersweet revelation, but one that stays true to a series that understood from the start that growing up isn’t a single moment of triumph, it’s a process, and that one day’s happy ending gives way to tomorrow’s complications. The dragons allowed the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to soar, but a the willingness to acknowledge the hard truths of life kept it grounded.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.