I wasn’t completely on board with How to Train Your Dragon until that dragon made its first real appearance. Oh, sure, the human hero Hiccup is cute and all, and the dragon attack on his village is exciting and well done, but meeting the Night Fury up close was what really captured my attention. The animators don’t try to anthropomorphize the creature. It doesn’t talk, and it doesn’t understand every single word humans say. It is clearly alien, clearly dangerous, and thus absolutely fascinating. And yet, gradually, the movie also reveals dragon traits that feel familiar. I’ve heard it described as dog-like, but I think the dragon, whom Hiccup eventually names Toothless (a joke, not a descriptor), acts more like a cat. In fact, Toothless’s big golden eyes and his many feline mannerisms reminded of nothing so much as my cat Luna, and that made me love him all the more—which is appropriate, seeing as How to Train Your Dragon is, in a weird way, a sort of romance of domestication and human-animal symbiosis. If only my Luna could fly!
Loosely based on the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon is set in an isolated Viking village that must constantly fend off dragon attacks. Wiry, brainy Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the son of the town chieftain, Stoick (Gerard Butler), but he hasn’t inherited his father’s warrior disposition. Determined to win Stoick’s respect—and perhaps the attention of the fierce, accomplished Astrid (America Ferrera)—Hiccup builds a cannon and shoots down a dragon in mid-air. But when he finds his victim in the woods, tangled in his cannon-shot nets, he can’t bring himself to slaughter the obviously frightened animal. Instead, he frees it—but the dragon is unable to fly away. As the days go by, Hiccup studies the hobbled dragon and slowly develops a bond with Toothless. His newfound knowledge of dragon behavior gives him an unprecedented advantage in dragon-fighting school, which makes Astrid suspicious. Hiccup’s secret is in danger of exposure just as he begins to realize that dragons are more complicated—and perhaps less dangerous—than his father and the other Vikings believe.
Hiccup and, to some degree, Stoick are the only people who get much in the way of character development, but each Viking is animated with such charm—rubbery, idiosyncratic faces and energetic vocal performances from the likes of Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig—that that doesn’t matter much. I’m still not persuaded about the worth of 3D, but that aside, the animation is strong. A scene in which a human being rides a dragon for the first time makes for a particularly vivid, dreamy sequence, and though the climactic battle scene goes on a bit too long, it’s put together well, like an old-fashioned aerial dogfight.
More important, though, the movie is surprisingly sweet—though once I learned its pedigree, that became a lot less surprising. Writer-director team Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders are also responsible for Lilo & Stitch, the criminally underrated Disney animated movie from 2002. With its bizarre story of an anarchic alien marooned in Hawaii, where he is adopted by a lonely little girl who mistakes him for a dog, Lilo & Stitch might not fit well into Disney’s fairy-tale pantheon, but its gorgeous watercolors, goofy sense of humor, and heartfelt themes about family make it one of my favorites. How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t resonate so deeply, but it is similarly humane. It takes seriously the strained relationship between Hiccup and his dad, and it does a beautiful job of finding space for quiet little beats of emotion: regret and affection and fear and wonder.
But the best thing about How to Train is definitely Toothless—or, more precisely, the evolution of the relationship between Toothless and Hiccup. The movie doesn’t rush the bond—it’s not as though they become instant BFFs after the boy frees the dragon—so when they finally do reach the point at which they trust each other, that moment has meaning. And no matter how domesticated he gets, Toothless never stops being a dragon. There’s always something unknowable and otherworldly about him, which is as it should be, for that’s how it is: however much we love them, we never know exactly what’s going on in our pets’ fuzzy little heads. How to Train Your Dragon was made by people who know what it means to love an animal.