Dreamworks Studios’ 2010 animated film How to Train Your Dragon is a classic tale of a boy who doesn’t quite fit into society. Hiccup is a resourceful and intelligent teenager — but unfortunately, his bookishness and slightness of build are a constant source of mockery among his agemates.
His village is in constant conflict against dragons of every stripe and shape, with losses suffered by both sides. Big, boisterous Gobber (voiced by Craig Ferguson), a double amputee with peg leg and hook hand, doesn’t let his missing appendages get in the way of him teaching the village youth how to defend themselves against, and kill, dragons.
To prove his worth to his archetypical (i.e. big, strapping, muscled) Viking father Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler)–who also happens to be the village leader–Hiccup agrees to slay the dragon–a Night Fury–crippled by the village during the previous night’s attack. He sets a trap for this rarest of dragons, but when confronted with the big-eyed lizard, fails to deliver the killing blow.
Thus begins (with comic stops and starts) an unlikely and highly secretive friendship between two misfits of their respective societies. Hiccup learns how to understand dragons–what interests them (fish) and frightens them (eels), and Toothless (what he names the Night Fury) learns to trust Hiccup–like a big puppy.
This rapport lets Hiccup excel scholastically (and athletically), to the amazement of his classmates-cum-fans– until one night, when a suspicious Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera) discovers Toothless and is about to blow the whistle.
Hiccup stays her decision with a breathtaking flight on the back of Toothless, and eventually a journey to the Dragon’s Nest, where the real reason for the conflict between humans and dragons is discovered: a massive dragon named the Red Death, who forces dragons like Toothless to bring back food to it, or be eaten in its stead. Hiccup’s final exam is coming up: he must slay a dragon, which puts him in a real pickle. He has developed a deep bond with Toothless, and cannot maim, let alone kill any dragon.
To the shock and dismay of the Viking village, Hiccup refuses to kill the dragon and accidentally reveals not just Toothless, but the location of the dragons’ nest as well. A devastated Stoick leaves with a fleet of ships and a bound Toothless, determined to destroy all dragons.
After some soul searching, Hiccup, Astrid and the rest of the Viking youth fly to the dragons’ nest on the back of the village’s captured dragons. Hiccup is instrumental in redeeming his village, saving the dragons, destroying the Red Death, and regaining the respect of Stoick (as well as everyone else).
But his victory is not without sacrifice; he loses a leg in the same way that Toothless is missing part of his tail. Both are united by injury and a common cause that has created a new alliance between humans and dragons. In a typical stoical, Viking way, Hiccup accepts his missing limb as a war injury and the badge of a Viking warrior.
The animation is stunning, and the flying sequences remind me strongly of an IMAX film. The plot (a character who becomes an unlikely hero who saves his society), although a familiar one, doesn’t descend into the saccharine with adorable sidekicks, but plays it rather realistically (if a bit cynically, at times). How to Train Your Dragon is, like Baby Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, just right.