How to Train Your Dragon: Ten years later

While the final year of any decade lends itself to reflection and closure, 2019 marked the end of more than a few eras. Some of them landed as expected (The Infinity Saga; The Skywalker Saga), while some of them were rather unexpected (The progress made by content providers like Disney, CBS and DC toward disassembling the Streaming Triumvirate’s near-monopoly).

Some of them meant little to me personally (Tom Brady’s last season as a Patriot; Game of Thrones), while others (The Blackhawks’ closing the book on their time as Team of the Decade; the Cubs’ abruptly ending Joe Maddon’s tenure) hit much closer to home.

And then there was the end of a particular franchise, the only one that would drive this grown, 40-something man to post the following metaphorical shout into the void.

How to Train Your Dragon.

Taken during the the second leg of a back-to-back showing. This one might not have been as voluntary as the others.

When Dreamworks released the first movie ten years ago today, my son was barely out of his toddler phase. I didn’t give it much thought. The Bolts, Megaminds, and Madgascars of the recent animated world were alright, if not mercifully forgettable. Tangled and Kung Fu Panda were better; I could tolerate replaying those even twice in the same week if the boy wanted it.

I barely remember the previews for How To Train Your Dragon. I remember those shorts the NBC-Universal Synergy Machine aired during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Our kid was too young for theaters, so I paid the movie little mind.

My wife rented it that fall, and it was a big hit with all of us. My son couldn’t get enough of it. It would play several times a week, sometimes twice in a day, sometimes even twice in a row. (The DVD would restart itself if left running after the credits.)

I lost track of how many times my son watched the original How To Train Your Dragon movie. The conservative estimate is well over 50 times within the first year of its DVD release. Sure, this was not the first time a kid wanted a favorite show on repeat, nor would it be the last. What surprised me was that I was right there next to him for nearly every showing, and nearly all of those viewings were voluntary.

The World of Warcraft zone Howling Fjord.

Why? It was the perfect movie at the perfect time. I had spent most of the previous year playing in the Howling Fjord and Grizzly Hills zones of World of Warcraft’s latest expansion. I had started more research into my Irish ancestry, tracing my name back back before the Vikings founded the towns in the eventual Free State. I was fed up with what the previous decade had done to most genres of rock, so I branched out, exploring more instrumental music, including Irish jigs and reels.

You might say I was primed for a good fantasy movie set in a Norse-Gael world with a good score. I just never expected that film to be an animated “kids” movie.

The film, written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois, did many things right, but I’ll focus on three of them: one obvious, the other two less so.

The Score

Criticizing Oscar nominations and awards is as much a part of Awards Season as the Academy Awards themselves. I expected Toy Story 3 to beat HTTYD for Best Animated Feature; the Academy and its voters can’t stop themselves from voting for a Disney/Pixar movie. John Powell’s loss to Trent Reznor for Best Score, however, was egregious.

Powell’s score is thematic and compelling. The melodies, often used for Berk, Hiccup, Toothless, and Astrid, as well as a “boss theme,” were unique, yet Powell could weave in and out of them without jarring the viewer. This movie had four extended sections with little to no dialogue, scenes that were allowed to breathe yet did not bog down the movie (more on that later).

While the melodies/themes were used throughout the movie(s), Powell also knew when to hold back. The arrangement for the “Forbidden Friendship” scene, in which the two main characters bond, was never fully revisited until the epilogue of the final movie, when Hiccup introduces his kids to Toothless, giving the latter scene that much more weight, more power.

The “Test Drive” scene–especially the back half of it–is one of the all-time greats. It should be iconic. The score behind it is every bit as good as the themes that come to mind when you say the name “John Williams.”

The Pacing

There is so little wasted motion in this movie. It brought the different plots of the story along quickly without ever feeling rushed. This article breaks down the movie in such a way that any attempt I made would be merely reinventing the wheel.

The movie’s sequel, “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” expanded the world around Berk, dug deeper into the main characters, and could have outshone its predecessor. However, it struggled in its pacing, a flaw that arguably is the cause for any of the movie’s problems.

The Dad

Voiced by Gerard Butler a few years after his turn as Leonidas in 300, the character of Stoick could have been a one-note caricature that yelled, growled, scowled his way through the entire movie. Modern Western animation is littered with perpetually-disapproving parents. Deblois, Sanders, and Butler, however, turned him into something more relatable.

There were several little moments and conversations that accomplished this, perhaps none more effective than when Stoick walked away after verbally disowning his son. The movie makes a point to show him leaving the Great Hall, and as the impact of saying, “You’re not my son,” truly sinks in, he look of horror washes over his face and he staggers briefly, before The Chief in him takes over again.

For all of their differences, for as much as Hiccup had failed to live up to his father’s expectations, Hiccup was still his son. It’s a shot lesser movies would have skipped, and it’s another little detail that makes the payoff at the end of the movie even better.

The How to Train Your Dragon franchise–including the movies, the specials, the series–was a big part of the past decade in our house. For me, it showed that “animation for the whole family” could be more than overly-simplistic plots for kids and rapid-fire pop culture references for the parents. Memories of time spent with my kids that I hope they will remember for even half as long as I will. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

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