How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, feels fresh and new, despite being the third in the series. Granted, it helps that I haven’t seen the other two. The movie has a stillness and quiet confidence that sets it apart from other children’s films.
Written and directed by Dean DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon is simplistic in the story, but complex in theme. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now the ruler of Berk and, along with his dragon Toothless, have turned the village into a refuge for dragons. Berk has become a utopia where dragons and humans can live together in harmony. But paradise is an illusion. DeBlois shows us the fractures forming early on. A recently rescued dragon jumps about playing with another baby dragon; its excited movements cause mass destruction to nearby homes. It is one thing for two species to live together. But the fact of the matter is that humans and dragons require different things for happiness. Both love wide open spaces, but humans crave infrastructure whereas dragons merely desire room to spread their wings.
DeBlois’ clever and streamlined story understands the sublime beauty of basic cause and effect. By that, I mean it doesn’t over-complicate matters. Much like a silent film, it goes for the heart of the matter. If Hiccup and the rest of the villagers of Berk are rescuing dragons, then obviously the people kidnapping them might be a little irked. The warlords and conquerors hire Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham). A famous dragon hunter Grimmel is known for killing the last of the Furies, except for Toothless. DeBlois understands the crux of all great cinema, and its villains, is obsession. Hearing about Toothless, Grimmel takes the job and uses a newly discovered white lady Fury as his bait. It worked for Melville, and it works here.
One of the joys of How to Train Your Dragon is the loving detail of the animators. DeBlois and his team have lovingly rendered each dragon with definitive features and personality quirks. A small thing, but it helps us to figure out which dragon is which, when we have scenes in which crowds of dragons gather. By conditioning our eyes to connect the movement or quirk with the dragon, when we have dragon crowd scenes, we are able to pick out the ones we know. It also goes a long way to helping us understand where each character is in relation to another.
All of this lends a much more cinematic aspect to How to Train Your Dragon than most animated films. I mentioned in my review for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse how the animators would purposefully have the background out of focus to make you pay attention to the foreground. A common practice in live action films but not in animation. Similarly How to Train Your Dragon allows for, what one would call, insert shots. These are brief shots that show us the consequence of an action.
During one of the raids Hiccup and his crew attack a fleet of ships to rescue a horde of dragons. During the ensuing melee, barrels and crates are knocked off. We are taken underwater and shown the crates and barrels falling into the ocean’s depth. It’s a minor thing, but it helps visually complete the action and better implants in our minds the sequence of events. It also adds a layer of danger by showing how bottomless the ocean is, thereby allowing us to view the ocean as something other than surface water. Again it is a brief moment and adds nothing to the plot. But DeBlois and his editor John K. Carr understand that it’s the little things that make a movie great. Another studio would have cut the scene because it doesn’t add any flair or contribute to the plot element. But the shot is necessary in helping us fully contextualize the world in our minds.
DeBlois and Carr utilize what is essentially basic film grammar to give How to Train Your Dragon an epic feel, like something out of a film by Akira Kurosawa or David Lean. They enable a grandiosity by having crowd scenes not be overpopulated and allowing the large swaths of space empathize the vastness of the space.
DeBlois and Carr give us scenes where the two dragons, Toothless and Fury, court each other. Since both are dragons and do not speak, the scenes are largely silent. Animation is a visual medium but rarely do animators truly understand the complexity of the word “visual”. How to Train Your Dragon, on the other hand, relishes the freedom of the form. DeBlois and Carr are aided by John Powell’s score as it helps undermine the feeling of never-ending sky and earth framed in the shots.
When Toothless and Fury fly through the sky the camera follows them in such a way as to make the shot feel weightless. The expanse of the clouds seems to go on forever. How to Train Your Dragon luxuriates in its world in a way few animated films are allowed to do.
Even the relationship between Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera) is handled in a more mature and circumspect manner than most family movies. Marriage is talked about in a way that seems healthy and normal. It is not treated as a requirement but as a societal expectation. Both Astrid and Hiccup would like to marry at some point but on their own terms. The mere notion of understanding the difference between being expected to do something and feeling comfortable with doing something is in of itself, rare. Rarer still for large scale Hollywood family films.
All of this would be enough, but DeBlois has more on his mind than merely obsession and extinction. Underneath How to Train Your Dragon is a story about emigration—an homage and salute to the bravery and fortitude of people forced to emigrate from their homeland. The people of Berk must flee their home in order to protect their dragons and escape Grimmel and his armies. The dragons themselves must flee the Berks in order to return to their homeland, the Hidden World. In both cases, DeBlois underlies the emotional pain of fleeing your home. How to Train Your Dragon is less about “if you love something set it free”, and more about leaving home in search of a better and safer world.
“What makes us Berks? The land? Or who we are?” A bold statement anytime it’s uttered, especially in a time where “America for Americans” is the slogan of the day. In all the rhetoric swirling around the internet about “illegals” and “aliens”, the question that is never asked is “What makes us American?” How to Train Your Dragon poses the questions and shows the struggle of the journey. It leaves the answer for us to discover.
The underlying immigration theme may outlast the other metaphor that is handled less gracefully: that of the dragons as an oppressed class. Grimmel and Hiccup have an argument during one of their first fights about how Dragons and people are “equal”. Like most movies that attempt to use a metaphor or equality, it gets muddled. Especially when we consider that the dragons are used more as loyal steeds than autonomous beings. Hiccup’s rousing speeches about how the dragons deserve respect are muted when he decides to grant Toothless his freedom. An act that implies Toothless may not be viewed quite as equal as Hiccup, Astrid, and the others claim.
It is a minor flaw, and How to Train Your Dragon is hardly the first to stumble with it. Still, it would be nice if writers would undertake the bare minimum of a minute to fully look at what they are saying when they start throwing around words such as “oppressed” or “equal”. The storyline is almost non-existent and in no way sinks the film itself. It is merely a pet peeve of mine.
How to Train Your Dragon is breathtaking in its visual scope. At times it resembled the work of Mamoru Hosoda in its elegant and simple visuals combined with lush colors and designs. DeBlois, like Hosoda, allows for a sereneness to engulf us as the movie unfolds before our eyes. The modern Hollywood landscape abhors silence and sneers at movies that take their time. It is refreshing to see action and fantasy need not be noisy overstuffed lore-ridden epics. Sometimes the simplest stories are the most powerful.