Home > Movie Reviews, The Family, Theology > Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon (UPDATED)

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon (UPDATED)

30 April 2010

How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) is a (2-d)/3-d animated adaptation of a series of children’s books, about an adolescent boy growing up in a hypothetical Viking town; the latter of which has a, shall we say, large pest problem.  The problem is that, very frequently, several dragons (the large pests) will swoop down at night, carrying off the Viking’s food supply.  The villagers retaliate by killing dragons, and the dragons retaliate by killing people and demolishing the village’s infrastructure. 

Enter Hiccup, the teen-age son of the village chieftain.  Hiccup is different from the other teenager villagers.  He is, even by Non-Viking standards, very scrawny.  He’s also somewhat of a whiz at blacksmithing, though he makes no bones about wanting to join the other teenagers in dragon training, where the village young’ns are taught how to tow their line by killing dragons. 

Never one to give up, Hiccup plays on his strengths as a smithy, and builds a contraption that captures (unbeknownst to the other villagers) a live dragon.  What follows from that point is how boy and dragon become friends, and how they are able to transform both of their societies (the dragon is a member of a village, too). 

I liked the movie because it’s a good family movie.  At no point did I have to tell my child to cover her eyes (though I missed a bit when she had to take a trip to the restroom).  I honestly can’t remember anyone or anything getting killed.  Which is (to quote Bill Murray in Caddyshack), “nice.” 

I also liked the themes of friendship, a family growing closer (albeit clumsily) through trials, and that small groups of individuals are capable of transforming the evils of society. 

What I did not like that much is the film’s attitude towards morally justifiable war.  As revealed later in the film, the root cause of the war between humans and dragons is that the dragon-village has cooperated with a large and pernicious evil within their society.  They are to be pitied because they are slaves to the evil, but because they cooperate with the evil, they’ve essentially surrendered the moral high-ground to the human-village  (which after all, is only defending itself). 

The “logic” goes like this:  The dragons have killed hundreds of humans.  But the humans have killed thousands of dragons.  Therefore, the humans are wrong to wage war against the dragons

Let’s think about that for a minute.  If a gang of ruffians came by your house twice a week on average, stealing from your house, and threatening the safety of your family, and you and your family were the only people in the business of defending your household .. would you really let the gang run roughshod over your household, given that they suffered more losses than your family?

I wouldn’t.  I wouldn’t even if they lost 10,000 and I lost none.  And if I knew they’d continue to try to hurt my family, I’d go after them.  Point being, the number-logic doesn’t work. 

(Fortunately, we live in a country with good law enforcement agencies, which leaves us, in most places, relatively safe from such threats). 

Having said this, I realize that there are conservative Christians who embrace pacifism.  This article is not intended as a dig against Pacifism.  Indeed, the “hundreds .. thousands,” logic employed by HTTYD presupposes a moral theory of war that doesn’t fall within the category of Pacifism  (there now, aren’t you impressed at how skillfully I dodged that can of worms?).  😉

But like I said – good film.  I recommend going… and ignoring the obvious Imago Dei problem.  Remember – It’s a film.  Just go ahead and affirm that humans and dragons both possess it, within the hypothetical universe of the film.  😉

– Elder

[UPDATE – I forgot to mention that the film has a sub-plot that deals with disability.  There is no verbal dialogue about it (again – keep in mind that I missed a few minutes), but there is a non-verbal dialogue that is precious and heartening.  Blink, and you could miss it.  😉  ]

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  1. Jason
    30 April 2010 at 12:43 PM

    The dragons have killed hundreds of humans. But the humans have killed thousands of dragons. Therefore, the humans are wrong to wage war against the dragons. ”

    Say what? Where does it say that? Nothing of the sort.

    Besides, If you think the movie is a promotion of absolute pacifism and non-violence, and that no body gets killed, the part you missed must have been the final battle, where Viking children and dragons team up to fight and destroy the uber-dragon.

    Rather, the movie recognizes legitimate uses of violance, but also promotes mercy towards crippled and fallen enemies, and reconcilliation between both within families and between enemies. Both are virtues well within the bounds of the Western, Christian and even warrior traditions.

    “ignoring the obvious Imago Dei problem”

    Not only is a it a film, it is fantasy. If beavers, lions and Centaurs can be made Imago Dei Leo (pardon my no doubt bad Latin) then why can’t dragons be decent creature, especially to children that do the functional exquivelent of pulling the throne out of their paw?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Androcles

  2. Elder Oyster
    30 April 2010 at 1:39 PM

    Hi Jason

    RE: “Say what? Where does it say that? Nothing of the sort.”

    Hiccup uses this reasoning when he’s arguing with his father.

    RE: “If you think the movie is a promotion of absolute pacifism and non-violence, ”

    I didn’t. Far from it (see 2nd to last paragraph)

    RE: “the part you missed must have been the final battle, where Viking children and dragons team up to fight and destroy the uber-dragon.”

    Yes, I did see that part. There was a fight, and the uber-dragon died, but to me the uber-dragon’s death was a combination of strategem and accident rather than out-and-out violence. Compare the uber-dragon’s defeat and death to the first five minutes of any of the TV medical forensic shows, and it seems even less like violence.

    But, if you want to call it violence, I’m cool with that. 😉

    RE: “Not only is a it a film, it is fantasy. If beavers, lions and Centaurs can be made Imago Dei Leo (pardon my no doubt bad Latin) then why can’t dragons be decent creature, ”

    Correct. The story exists in a universe that originates within the imagination of the writer. I mentioned the Imago Dei thing to remind the reader that after all, the review is an attempt to weigh the truth-value of the story within that imaginary universe, rather than ours. 😉

  3. Jason
    1 May 2010 at 3:11 AM

    “The dragons have killed hundreds of humans. But the humans have killed thousands of dragons. Therefore, the humans are wrong to wage war against the dragons.”

    “Hiccup uses this reasoning when he’s arguing with his father.”

    Just rewatched the movie. He says nothing of the sort.

    What you are thinking of is the lines…

    “They’ve killed hundreds of us!” Stoic yells at his son. “But we’ve killed thousands of them!” Hiccup replies. “They’re just defending themselves.”

    He never, never says “Because we killed more, we are in the wrong.”

    What he was trying to do was explain to his father WHY the dragons were attacking. The dragons were acting out of necessary self-preservation and not simple malevolence or greed. If they don’t raid the livestock, they are eaten by uber-dragon.

    The entire Viking attitude towards dragons is based on the notion that the dragons are killing humans simply for the sake of killing humans because they are “demons” that will “always go for the kill.” Thus, Viking response to dragons is note merely defend when attacked but always “kill on sight.”

    Hiccup learns is that that dragons are more then just killing machines and it is possible to initiate peaceful interaction with dragons.

    “And if I knew they’d continue to try to hurt my family, I’d go after them. Point being, the number-logic doesn’t work.”

    Yet no “numbers logic” was ever offered. The actual point Hiccup was trying to make was that going after them not only not necessary, but suicidal. Why hunt them down and exterminate them if you can scare them off with eels, or, even better, make friends with them?

    Finally one shouldn’t put to much weight on anything said in that scene as being an example of a clearly though out, coherently communicated theory of just war or anything else, because ultimately, that scene is about a lack of communication.

  4. Elder Oyster
    1 May 2010 at 11:07 AM

    Hi Jason,

    I found the number-logic to be present, implicitly as well as explicitely; and I believed it was fleshed out quite nicely in Hiccup’s contempt for his own people.

    Arguments are rarely spelled out in all of their gory detail. That’s why we have words like, “presupposition,” and “implicit,” and “inductive.”

    Finally, the dragons are not “defending themselves against the humans.” They are rather, defending themselves from having to deal with their own problem at the cost of being complicit with that evil. To put in bluntly, every time a dragon is killed in the war between humans and dragons, the dragon is wholly culpable (something Hiccup fails to concede in his argument with dad).

    You on the other hand, disagree. Which is certainly your prerogative.

  5. robroy
    5 May 2010 at 11:29 AM

    First and foremost, I was so thankful to have a film that I could take my kids to. An invaluable tool for parents in the Plugged In movie review site by Focus on the Family. This is what they concluded: “But I don’t think caution sinks the film’s soaring spirit. How to Train Your Dragon may actually be DreamWorks Animation’s best movie yet—a fun, thrilling Viking voyage that, in the end, is a simple yet salient story about a dragon and his boy.”

    They also have an interesting interview with the co-director: http://tinyurl.com/296vmrf

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