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A long time ago in a faraway land, there lived a boy named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and he trained a dragon. Raising it as a friend, instead of fighting it as his fellow villagers expected, we witness the transformation of our protagonist from meek to heroic as he paves his way through the barbaric archipelago of the How to Train Your Dragon world. Loosely based on the 2003 children’s book by British author Cressida Cowell and from the minds of DreamWorks, HTTYD puts viewers into a world of wonder and beauty, be it flying through the sky on the back of a winged giant or dodging a fireball as part of an epic battle.
Arriving between the so-so Monsters vs Aliens and the disappointing Shrek Forever After, HTTYD received incredible reviews and still holds up 10 years after its release. Why is this? After all, it holds all those clichés that can be tiresome – the misfit becoming the hero, the parent (Gerard Butler) stuck in a mindset that challenges their protagonist child, the creature that must be hidden from the authorities (E.T, anyone?).
What is it about this gem that caused people to overlook how textbook its plot threads are and spawned two similarly successful sequels, a TV series and video games? Well, we see a character that grows and learns as the story progresses. We see a metaphor for how animals should be treated, understood rather than feared and, in many cases, hunted. We witness a boy study the dragons that inhabit his world as the filmmakers weave a narrative that is both visually stunning and emotionally touching in how it handles these inter-species relations.
The characters compliment the environment and the animation compliments both. The majestic movement of each dragon is fascinating from a kinetic point of view. The animators on the project attended a ‘flight school’ program during production in order to study the physics of wing movement and quadrupedal motion and it shows. The flow and follow through of the wing flaps as the dragons soar through the sky add immense realism to the creatures. Each also has its own style and moves differently, only further adding to the depth of each sub-species of the winged giants.
This wonderful design work doesn’t just apply to the creatures of lore. Looking at the Vikings, viewers see the sheer beauty of the hair simulation on the human characters’ beards. Meanwhile, the film’s breathtaking flight scenes also highlight the symbiotic relationship between visuals and score, thanks to a truly soaring and Oscar nominated soundtrack from composer John Powell. All the above blend together to form something fans of animation clearly couldn’t get enough as evident from its two follow-ups.
The stellar animation work wouldn’t hit as hard though were it not for how invested viewers become in the film’s protagonists. When a character experiences strong emotions – anger, jealousy, happiness – or suffers from inner turmoil, we really feel it. This is partly because of how immersive the world they inhabit feels. Yet, it’s also down to those so called ‘clichés’ mentioned earlier. Here they manage to be effective because, as we’ve seen the character and plot beats countless times before, they are easy to understand and become invested in.
Whether you are a first-time viewer or have followed the franchise’s adventures since 2010, there is something for everyone in How to Train Your Dragon. Just turn it on, sit back and let its gorgeous visuals and impactful story take flight dragon style.