‘How to Train Your Dragon’ May Be the Best Political Thriller In Years

[1 November 2010]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

This entertaining and often exhilarating Dreamworks computer-animated film works on almost every level. It is both a marvelous visual experience, featuring lots of roller coaster dragon’s-eye-view sequences, and a smartly constructed piece of fantasy. It’s funny, charming, touching, and exciting – everything a children’s fable should be. I loved it.

The story of a very clever but physically diminutive young man named Hiccup, his hyper-masculine Viking community, and their protracted war with the dragons who persistently raid their land for food, How to Train Your Dragon takes a classic coming of age tale and wraps it in a narrative about conciliation and cultural misunderstanding. Hiccup (a very funny Jay Baruchel), in an effort to prove himself to his always-disappointed dragon-killing legend of a father (Gerard Butler) manages to wound the most dreaded of all dragons, and it becomes trapped in a small valley. Unable to kill the injured animal, Hiccup takes to learning about it before eventually befriending it. (This is the whole “training” part, which is actually a bit of a misnomer, because in many ways this friendship develops on an equal plane, each needing the other to comply with his/its needs, but anyway.) So eventually, Hiccup, working with his erstwhile enemy in a united effort to end the war, is found out by his hyper-prejudiced dragon-hating brethren, and all plot breaks loose.

It isn’t hard to read How to Train Your Dragon as an allegory about the central problem with our prosecution of the War on Terror. A kid-friendly version of the lesson we have as yet utterly failed to learn, How to Train Your Dragon presents two apparently irreconcilable forces (warlike Vikings who define their identities through their steadfast defense of their community and the apparently mindless killing machines who are the dragons), and then considers what might happen if they were to get to know one another and try to work out a non-violent solution to their problems. Turns out, they might just have a common enemy that they can confront together, overcome, and live in harmony ever after.

The idea that violence is not the only answer, and that cultural misunderstanding is often at the root of horrific, protracted, and seemingly intractable conflicts, is the central point of this film’s message. When we refuse to listen to our “enemy”, when we refuse to humanize our enemy (dragons simply must be evil, right?), when we refuse to allow their own needs and wants and realities to concern us, we fail to appreciate the possibility of peace. The Vikings in this story, so consumed with the idea that they are defined through their bravery, skill, and muscle mass, can’t see the possibility of an end to the war other than the eradication of their enemy. Until Hiccup shows them (at great personal, social, and familial risk) that there is another way, nothing was ever going to change.

Funny, but How to Train Your Dragon may be the best and smartest political thriller of the past few years. Certainly, it is among the most entertaining. 

This “Dragon Double” edition (because they can’t say “Double Dragon” without getting sued, I guess?) comes with a bunch of interesting little featurettes, a few games (one in which you get to discover what kind of Viking you would be after answering a series of questions), a bonus short film on a separate DVD (which is an amusing if unnecessary diversion but certainly too brief at 15-minutes to justify its own disc), a leash (which we are actually using for our dog), a whistle (which we are not), and a little bag of trans-fat-laden gumdrops that they are calling Dragon Treats (straight into the trash).

All of this comes in a big red box which looks all burnt and sooty at the edges (presumably damaged by dragon fire) and which actually rubs off on your skin and clothes—I wasn’t too pleased with that special effect. Anyway, despite the absurd over-packaging and unhealthy treats and stained white t-shirt that is possibly now ruined, the movie was worth it. Enjoy. 

(Note: This film was released as a 3D picture in many theatres, but this edition of the DVD is 2D all the way.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/132855-how-to-train-your-dragon-dragon-double-dvd-pack/