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Raised by Dragons - A Retrospect of How To Train Your Dragon

by Juan-Pablo Pina

Movie Poster for the film

One of the most spectacular pieces of dragon media is, without a shadow of a doubt, the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. As someone who has practically grown up with beasts like the Night Fury and Deadly Nadder, I’ve been amazed by dragons since I could remember. Maybe it’s just a branch of my love for dinosaurs and animals or maybe there’s something else. Either way, I feel as though we need that same type of magic and wonder to return to the media. So consider this an analysis of one of my favorite film series of all time. Spoilers ahead.

Part I. A Rider At Heart

Every story needs good characters. And the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, in my opinion, has some of the best examples of good character writing. Not only do characters (mostly) stick to their guns, they feel things and make bad calls and bad jokes just like real people.

For example, Hiccup, the main character of the franchise, is a dragon-lover. But despite his skinny build, he is shown to be brave, caring and kind instead of the archetypal warrior sitting atop a roaring dragon. And he’s even been shown to stick to his guns while not doing so like when he killed the Red Death, a massive alpha dragon, in defense of the dragons and the Vikings of his homeland, Berk. In How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, we meet Grimmel, a tactical and innovative dragon poacher who is, according to him, the “Night Fury killer”, claiming that he is the one who hunted the Night Furies to extinction. What makes Grimmel special is the fact that he is a walking “what if?...” scenario if Hiccup had killed Toothless, the main dragon of the franchise who is also a Night Fury. And even the dragons have good character writing despite them being animals.

For example, Toothless is shown to be a very complex animal on many occasions. Almost like baby elephants, Toothless mimics Hiccup’s mocks after the flying scene in How To Train Your Dragon 2. And in the first film, he is shown to still be a wild animal. He shows fear and apprehensive curiosity like when animals like canids, elephants, and cetaceans first come across human settlements. Honestly, I’m willing to say that the dragons may have even better character writing than even the humans!

But back on to the human characters, their evolution throughout the film is incredibly tangible. For example, in the first movie Stoick, Hiccup’s dad, is a brutish yet sympathetic father who wants to win the war against the dragons at all costs. In movie two, it’s easy to see how, despite him still being a chief who specializes in combat, he’s become far more loose and jolly. And even in the Netflix series, Dragons: Race to the Edge, Snotlout, the archetypical jerk of the group, is shown to become funnier yet far kinder than he was in movie one. These characters, along with their many traits and evolutions, have taught me so many things. Even Hiccup’s sarcastic, “...we’re dead,” from the first film has subconsciously become a part of my vocabulary along with many other lines like, “This changes everything.” And even the line “You never cease to amaze me, bud,” is that one phrase that me and my dad just naturally bonded over. Now human characters are cool and all, but, let’s face it, we’re all here for one thing: the “pets”.

Most places have ponies or parrots. But Berk and its neighboring islands? They have something no one else can touch: dragons.

Part II. There Be Dragons…Everywhere!

So…I want to talk about dinosaurs (it’ll make sense I promise). Dinosaurs are reptiles, a class of animals so different from us emotional mammals that it’s only reasonable for us to be curious, disgusted and terrified by them. And even though their reign ended 66 million years ago, we still let their ghosts dwell among us in films like Godzilla and books like the Dinotopia series. And the How To Train Your Dragon franchise brings to life the diversity, ferocity, and wonder of the world of the dinosaurs in a way that’s just so insert chef’s kiss.

For example, animals in the real world have insane looks and abilities. Similar to how the Armorwing dragon uses metal to cover up its vulnerable hide by welding it together, decorator crabs will grab pieces of their environment, like plants or rocks, and simply use them as camouflage. And animals have been huge inspirations for the creators of the dragons. Amphibians, arthropods, bats, big cats, birds, chameleons, dogs, dinosaurs, fish, rhinos and even walruses have been inspirations for dragons like the Gronckle, Rumblehorn, Seashocker and Stormcutter. And their abilities, strange as they are, still have some basis in them.

Seashockers, two-headed marine dragons capable of emitting deadly electric shocks, are similar in that regard to the electric eel. The basic fire-breathing capabilities of beasts like the Monstrous Nightmare and Typhoomerang can be extrapolated to be what is essentially a scaled-up version of the bombardier beetle’s defense in which it sprays a dangerously hot liquid at attackers like ants. You could even chalk up the dragons’ similarities to animals like mammoths and certain dinosaurs to convergent evolution, a scenario in which two unrelated species evolve to have similar characteristics due to similar environmental pressures (e.g. horned dinosaurs and rhinos).

It’s even visible in the original book series by Cressida Cowell that was eventually adapted into the books in that dragons, even those of unrelated species, nest in massive colonies like how vast numbers of different animals gather around watering holes during the dry season (this is also seen in all three of the movies). This realism extends to even the settings! For example, the island of Berk is based on an actual island, and Valka’s sanctuary from How To Train Your Dragon 2 is based on the icebergs the creators saw when they visited Greenland to get a feel for the movie’s aesthetic.

All of this realism, in both the setting and the dragons themselves, has been just one of the many thrusters that I’ve gained over time that I’ve accumulated that has let my passion for animals skyrocket. I’ve loved animals since I was a wee lad and have ever since. The realism of the dragons, along with their riders and their lands, has simply left me awestruck at the sheer ferocity and wonder of nature. I’ve even written essays that try and explain how the world of How To Train Your Dragon could become a reality (in short: climate and geological change and convergent evolution).

And, in truth, the dragons of the films are just as mysterious and straight-up amazing that they are on par with the sheer awesomeness and mystery of the dinosaurs and the billions of organisms that came before and after them. And even the constant threat of dragon hunters has been a sort of parallel for the poaching and habitat loss that many species face. In a way, the How To Train Your Dragon franchise managed to create its own “animal kingdom” that still makes me feel like a kid in the biggest and most vibrant candy shop in the world. And, being autistic, the dragons, along with the natural world that they mirror, have become my hyper-fixation that I’m pretty sure no one can steer me away from (though many attempts have been made to redirect me). I just loved the dragons so much that I still remember bawling when they left the Vikings at the end of the third movie and I even used to have a giant poster in my room of Hiccup riding Toothless.

So here is a prime example of how to craft and be inspired by a fictional natural world. But…what’s the takeaway? What’s the lasting impression that these films, along with the many comics and shows, leave? Well…it’s complicated.

Part III. A Soaring Success

So what’s the aftereffect of this grand display of creativity? Well…there’s a lot. So I’m going to talk about how the franchise has affected me as a person and mention many other things.

For one, the score of the films has always been a huge inspiration for me. Songs like Dragon Racing, This is Berk and Where No One Goes will forever be some of my favorite songs of all time. The third became that one song that I and my dad bonded over, especially after seeing the second movie (which is where “Where No One Goes” features) in the theaters when I was a wee lad (I still have the ticket from that viewing!). Other songs like Flying with Mother, Forbidden Friendship, and Romantic Flight are also up there with some of my favorite cinematic soundtracks. But the technical side of things goes far beyond the music.

The sounds of the dragons were made by combining animal sounds like how Toothless’s voice is made by using the sounds of cats, elephants, elephant seals, horses and tigers. And the sheer beauty of the animation makes a huge majority of the movie’s runtime feel like something that you could just grab a gorgeous photograph from. The “where no one goes” scene from the beginning of How To Train Your Dragon 2, the “romantic flight” sequence from the first film, and the “hidden world” scene from How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World are all absolute spectacles in which the colors, framing, lighting, and pacing is so perfect that it just wraps you up in its world. But all that aside, I think the most special thing that the  How To Train Your Dragon leaves you with are its messages. Not just one, but many, many more. 

One of my favorites is the “conservationist” message. It’s plain as day and is seen throughout the films and the many comics and shows. Considering that experts predict that 50% of the world’s species could be extinct by 2050, it’s not only a good message but an important one. It sort of subconsciously influenced me to become the huge rewilding fan and conservationist that I am. Another message, and probably my favorite, is the “power of friendship”. Is it cheesy? Yes. But seeing Toothless trust Hiccup as he fought the Bewilderbeest and seeing the pair bond in the forest was just so touching. And the fact that these two beings, both from races at war with the other, were able to form a “forbidden friendship” was that sort of inexplicably awesome and heartwarming thing that can only come from a true masterclass in creativity.

When you take all of that into account - the creativity, the emotion, the painfully important messages, the sound of both the score and the actual scenes, and the utterly jaw-dropping visuals - it’s easy to see how these dragons, along with their riders, have helped to shape me into who I am. And I genuinely hope that these films continue to inspire others for a long, long time.

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