This is a story of Vikings who are plagued by dragons.  These dragons come in all shapes and sizes and colors and live in a hive, hidden in a conical mountain.  They emerge to raid the Viking villages, seize sheep, and fly away with the wooly ones in their claws.  The villagers run in alarm and hide while the warriors shake their fists helplessly as the dragons flap away. The lead Viking warrior is voiced by Gerard Butler in his best role since P.S., I Love You. The lead trainer of new warriors is voiced by Craig Ferguson, he of the Late Night. Both actors are Scottish. And I always thought Vikings were Danish, like Hamlet.  Adding to the confusion is that fact that all the teenagers are from the San Fernando Valley and talk like refugees from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Whatever.  How to Train Your Dragon is a delightful little movie and a nice fable for children of all ages.  The morality tale is universal: everything you know about your supposed enemy is wrong.  And if you friend your enemy, you can put a saddle on it and ride it.

The animation resides in a nice in-between zone, somewhere between total digitalization and old-fashioned hand drawn cells.  I felt that Beowulf was over-drawn and bristling with hairs everywhere: up and down the arms, in the nose, all over the nose.  It is one thing for an artist to be meticulous; it is another to be obsessive, especially about body hair on adult males.  How to Train Your Dragon was somewhat less manic about such digital details, but it is distracting to wonder why the redheaded Storick has black hair on his upper arms.  Elsewhere the details are imaginative and telling.  Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera, is a Valley Girl to the hilt (literally), tossing her blonde hair out of her eyes, and strutting around, aware of her awesome cuteness.  She wears a swingy little skirt, composed of belts arranged like a kilt.  Her actual belt is a low hanging string of skulls.  Like all the Vikings, she wears Uggs and clumps around like a teenager shopping at Sherman Oaks Mall.  A classic Hitchcock heroine, she, the cool blonde, must pursue the nerdy Hiccup who can’t run, can’t hide, and can’t fight.  Like Grace Kelly, she has to help the immature boy grow up and take on his male responsibilities.

Hiccup, like all boys in all myths, must go on a quest and face danger, become a man and find his destiny.  Here, the universal journey of the hero meets Aesop’s Fables.  The mouse must remove the thorn from the paw of the lion.  The lion must trust the mouse and not eat him and the mouse must trust that the lion will not eat him. Cooperation between species saves the day.  In this case, it is the mouse, Hiccup, who snarls the dragon in his secret weapon, some kind of projectile that entangles the flying dragon in ropes.   The Night Fury is brought down into a helpless heap and discovered by Hiccup who is in search of his prey.  Turns out that the black dragon has a full set of teeth that pop out at any sign of danger.  When Hiccup manages to win the trust of the dragon and untie him, the teeth of Night Fury retract and he is re-named “Toothless.’’  Together, they must save the village of Berk from the real danger, a huge dragon who demands sheep offerings from the lesser dragons.

Although it is never adequately explained why the little dragons cluster around the big dragon like bats in a cave, our hero must free these hostages and save the sheep of the village.  To do so, he finds his hidden talent: he is a Dragon Whisperer and, like Cesar Millan, must win by asserting his superior personality as Pack Leader.  As Cesar teaches, force never wins; understanding triumphs, and dragons must be treated as dragons.  One must never project human characteristics upon animals, who are only seeking someone to follow.   By preaching peace, love and understanding, Hiccup convinces the villagers that the real foe is the old Pack Leader, the big bad dragon, which must be routed from the mysterious mountain.  The reward for good behavior is the demise of the worst dragon ever and the subservient servitude of all the grateful dragons.  Jay Baruchel, who voices Hiccup, loses a foot in the end of the movie, like Luke Skywalker lost his hand in Star Wars.  All heroes are marked off from the rest of the tribe.  Unlike Luke Skywalker, Astrid does not turn out to be his sister, so Hiccup gets the girl.

How to Train Your Dragon is a coming of age story for adolescent boys.  Once again, girls play the supporting role.  Astrid is gently mocked for her misplaced machismo, but she is at least allowed to retain her sword.  The village bullies become Hiccup’s sidekicks. Aside from Astrid, there seem to be few if any other females in the village.  True to such stories, Hiccup’s mother is conveniently dead.  Hiccup’s father realizes the true value of his son and the former boss of our young hero makes a prosthetic foot for his former apprentice.  Everyone is now united in celebrating the heroism of Hiccup. Many adults wait all their lives for this vindicating moment, but such a moment never comes, except in the movies.  Although the great anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, would have described the Hero’s Journey as one of self-actualization and self-discovery, the real hero’s journey for the modern nerd is the “I told you so” moment.   It’s not about winning; it’s about revenge.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

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