It’s that time of the year again where I rewatch the franchise that is closest to my heart. The franchise that makes me tear up and grin from ear to ear at just the opening titles. The franchise that feels tailor-made for me, no matter the time, day or place. Obviously, I’m talking about How to Train Your Dragon. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Reuben, you’re 23, why do you love a children’s film so much?”. The answer is simple: it makes me feel alive. No other film can impact me emotionally as much as this series can. I’ll try my best to explain why, so hold on tight, grab my hand and we’ll fly over what makes this movie just so special.
This is Berk. A bustling Viking town hampered by one slight inconvenience: dragons raid and pillage, lighting up the night skies with fiery fury. Greeting each other like old friends, the two species battle it out time and time again. It’s fitting then that dragon and Viking are destined to get along, given the ransacking habits that they have in common. To kickstart such an alliance is no easy feat though, killing dragons has been imbued across the land for as long as memory can serve. To break such an ingrained tradition would be treason; a direct attack on the Viking way of life.
Hiccup is the son of brave and fearsome Viking leader Stoick the Vast. As you’d expect, all eyes are on him to surpass his father and become a true Viking leader, a dragon killer to rule them all. He’s not like the others though. He’s weak, cowardly and is always acting strange. So when he stumbles upon a downed Night Fury, the king of dragons, it’s his chance to prove everyone wrong. The chance to kill his first dragon and become the person that everyone wants him to be. No matter what the rewards are though, when Hiccup locks eyes with the defenceless dragon laying in front of him, he can’t do it.
“I wouldn’t kill him, because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him…and saw myself.”
When I was younger, I visited a local museum and broke down in tears when I saw some stuffed animals on display. Staring at those lifeless bodies frozen in time behind glass horrified me. They looked so innocent, so helpless. It’s a memory that stuck, perhaps shaping who I am today. In my first year of university, my parents decided to stock my fridge with food before they left me to live on my own for the first time. I had a whole selection; burgers, chicken, sausages and a vast array of vegetables. When it came to cooking though, everything changed. I picked up the pieces of chicken and couldn’t bring myself to cook. It’s one thing to watch someone else do it but it takes a different kind of willpower to do it yourself. After a couple of weeks in denial and eating chicken tikka ready meals instead, I decided to give it all up and stick to just vegetables, and haven’t looked back. But what does this all have to do with the film?
When Hiccup drops that dagger and gives in, unable to kill, I too see myself. Sometimes the most cowardly act is the bravest. That moment of defiance and breaking of tradition will never fail to give me chills. It reassures me that it’s ok to be different. I don’t need to follow a set path laid out by others. I don’t need to act like someone else or be attracted to who I’m supposed to be. It may be blatant but it serves as a reminder to be true to yourself and your feelings. It’s a message that I’m sure many can find solace in, whatever the reason.
Moving on from its emotional resonance, How to Train Your Dragon is a visual and sonic delight. The animation may now be starting to noticeably age but the energy and adrenaline produced from watching dragons soar through the sky are very much still prevalent. The way the ‘camera’ flows and freely follows the action, sometimes at a distance, sometimes as if mounted on a dragon’s back is mesmerising. The simple touches of wings cutting through the surface of water or embers glinting in the aftermath of a fire blast provide depth to the wonder. John Powell’s magnificent score is what puts the icing on this triumphant cake, giving urgency to each flap of a wing. In each entry to the series, there are brief moments that feel incandescent, transcending a good animation to a great one. It’s the combination of magical music and the sense of freedom through flight. In these glimpses of beauty, I feel weightless, alive and free. It fills my heart in ways no other movie can.
This is a trilogy that had been planned all along. There isn’t a plot shoehorned in to generate a sequel, just one overarching narrative and character arcs that span the entire series. So upon revisiting the movie that started it all, there is even more joy to be found. There are tiny details that I’ve never noticed before that hint at things to come. At this point, I should just give in and rate this a 5 but I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it again and besides, I’ve got two more sequels to revisit in the coming days (that I love even more).
Upon writing this review I have come to realise just how special this series is to me. For those interested, I recently made a Letterboxd list to celebrate the power of movies. The idea is that people recommend the film that is most special to them and detail why. My initial choice was Columbus but I’m feeling like that might change once I have two more dragons franchise rewatches under my belt. Feel free to comment on the list with your movie of choice and a reason if you wish to take part!