With symbolic depth and masterful imagery, the craftsmanship of How to train your dragon exceeds that of many Academy Award-winners. Do not take the fact that it’s animated as a sign that it’s not worth your while.
But isn’t it just a kid’s movie?
No. It’s an elaborate tale about finding the courage to question your given identity.
Sequence A: Life Unfulfilled (15.10mins)
00.35 V.O Opening; “This is Berk…”
01.10 Dragon attack: Hiccup’s sent back to apprentice-duties.
05.35 Hiccup sneaks out, bringing his catapult.
06.25 Hiccup hits a night-fury.
07.50 Nobody believes him.
09.30 Stoick governs a search for the dragon nest.
10.15 Stoick’s frustrated with Hiccup’s unviking-like behavior. Gobber suggests dragon training.
11.35 Hiccup searches the woods for the night-fury.
12.30 He finds the dragon, hurt and tied down. “I did this”.
14.00 Hiccup’s unable to kill the dragon. Frees Toothless.
14.45 Toothless chooses not to kill Hiccup.
“This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of hopeless and a few degrees south of freezing to death. It’s located solidly on the meridian of misery.”
Clearly, the Hero of How to train your dragon is not happy here. A walking toothpick in a village of testosterone, he gets zero respect. Even his own father, the viking of all vikings, has Hiccup pegged a hopeless case.
So if this guy is such a nobody, why do we love the guy?
On top of being a clear underdog, Hiccup’s a funny dude; facing life with sarcastic wit. Instead of crying about not fitting in, Hiccup fights all odds to prove that he can be a viking. As an audience, we respond to his humor, his strength and his unrealistic courage.
“No one has ever killed a night-fury. That’s why I’m going to be the first.”
Not allowed in dragon training with the other kids, Hiccup is desperate to prove himself. Using brains instead of non-existent muscles, the toothpick manages the unimaginable. Hiccup shoots the most dangerous dragon there is.
Not believing for one second that Hiccup hit a night-fury, Stoick tries to talk some sense into him: “You’re many things Hiccup, but a dragon killer is not one of them.” Supporting Stoick, Gobber then gives us the theme of How to train your dragon: “Stop trying so hard to be something you’re not.”
Hiccup, not listening, goes on a search for the dragon. Upon finding it, however, our hero is caught in a moment of self-reflection. Facing the wounded night-fury, Hiccup experiences regret rather than the anticipated pride: “I did this.”
Unable to kill the dragon, Hiccup leaves his dreams of becoming a respected dragon-slayer behind, and sets Toothless free.
Without warning, our hero stands without goal or purpose. If he’s not a dragon fighting viking after all, then what is he?
Who, really, is Hiccup?
Sequence B: Fears and doubts (12.25mins)
15.15 Hiccup reluctantly agrees to start dragon training.
16.55 First dragon training. “A dragon will always, always, go for the kill.”
20.05 Hiccup’s back in the forest where he left Toothless, “So why didn’t you?”
20.45 Finds Toothless in deep hollow, missing a tail fin.
22.00 Dininghall: Hiccup is excluded from the group.
23.10 Dragon manual has no info on the night-fury; “Do not engage this dragon”.
24.45 Viking expedition: Stoick believes he’s closing in on the nest.
25.35 Dragon training: Hiccup asks about night-furys. Astrid: “Our parent’s war is about to becomes ours. Figure out what side you’re on.”
Not knowing who he is anymore, Hiccup accepts what everyone’s been saying all along – that he’s useless.
Ready to suppress his adventurous nature and settle for household-duties, Hiccup’s shocked to hear that he’s been granted permission to start dragon training. Unable to disappoint his father even further, Hiccup agrees.
As expected, Hiccup is a terrible fighter. At dragon training, his dream-girl Astrid – a warrior at heart – sees him as nothing but an annoyance. For a thrilling example of a perfect transition, take a look at the end of this scene.
From Gobber stating that “a dragon will always, always, go for the kill”, we cut straight to Hiccup, back in the forest where he freed the dragon, saying “So why didn’t you?”
Instead of a ton of information, we get a simple cut between two relevant scenes, telling us all we need to know. Furthermore, this moment in How to train your dragon is a great plot-point in itself, presenting an eye-opener for our hero.
Hiccup has seen something within Toothless, a hesitance to kill, which tells him that his perception about the dragon race is faulty. This is a story about Hiccup finding his identity, so naturally we ask “why couldn’t he kill the dragon?” But this plot-point makes us dive deeper. Why couldn’t the dragon kill him?
So no, How to train your dragon is not “just a kid’s movie”. It’s a metaphor for humanity’s ability to turn those we don’t understand into monsters. Because monsters, we can handle with violence, and that’s simpler than admitting we’re wrong.
Finding Toothless wounded and unable to feed himself, Hiccup’s sympathy for the night-fury grows. But this type of thinking is not supported by his fellow vikings. Hiccup’s curious questions about dragons receive a harsh reaction from Astrid:
“Our parent’s war is about to becomes ours. Figure out what side you’re on.”
Sequence C: Approaching Adventure (9.30mins)
27.40 Hiccup approaches Toothless. Throws weapon away. Toothless lowers his guard.
30.30 MONTAGE: Hiccup and Toothless sharing, drawing and playing.
33.00 Toothless allows Hiccup to touch him.
33.30 Gobber says to always go for the wings and tails. “A downed dragon, is a dead dragon.”
34.00 Announcement that one student will soon win the honor of killing a dragon.
34.30 Hiccup makes an artificial tail fin.
35.10 Hiccup distracts Toothless and applies the fin.
36.25 Toothless lifts, Hiccup still on.
37.00 As soon as Hiccup’s thrown off, Toothless crashes.
The screenwriters of How to train your dragon master the art of showing vital information at a quick pace. The montage of Hiccup and Toothless approaching one another and letting their guard down is both informative and strikingly heartfelt.
Without excessive dialogue, we understand that these two are leaving their previous lives and beliefs behind to embark on an adventure together. Learning from one another, Hiccup and Toothless find that they both have a need for the other.
How to train your dragon once again give us an emotional message in physical shape. Take a look at how the filmmakers show this need, without actually telling us about it.
Hiccup builds a prosthetic tail fin for the disabled dragon and with combined efforts, the boy and the dragon manage to fly.
Ingeniously simple. If one crashes down, so does the other. Literally.
Sequence D: Progress through teamwork (8.45mins)
37.10 Dragon training: “Today’s about teamwork.” Hiccup shocks the others with newfound skills.
39.10 Hiccup sows a saddle.
39.20 MONTAGE: Hiccup develops steering system for flying Toothless whilst learning how dragons work and using it to shine at dragon training.
42.00 Astrid is suspicious and jealous of Hiccup’s skills.
42.30 Viking crew is back from failed mission. Stoick’s hears of Hiccup’s success in the arena.
43.30 Hiccup flies Toothless. Bumpy and difficult, reading instructions from cheat sheet.
44.45 Drops the sheet. Forced to rely on instinct, he flies beautifully.
“Today, it’s about teamwork”. The first sentence perfectly sums up this sequence.
Whilst testing out methods of flying and steering, Hiccup and Toothless expand their friendship and evolve as a two-piece operation. What Hiccup learns from Toothless, he uses to succeed in the arena.
The worst viking in the world suddenly has a shocking way with the dragons. No longer worthless, our hero has become “someone” in the eyes of his fellow vikings. The question is; is this someone who he really is?
Furthermore; if the vikings like Hiccup, and the dragon is a good guy, then who is the antagonist of How to train your dragon?
Stoick‘s wishes for a perfect viking son stand in the way of Hiccup finding his true self. This makes him an antagonistic force. Even so, Stoick is proud of Hiccup at the moment, hence loosing some of his antagonism by being nice.
So at this point, the tribe, the dragon and the dad are all being nice. When everything is working nicely, why don’t we lose interest?
Because as Stoick grows kinder, Astrid becomes more aggressive. She’s determined to find out what Hiccup’s up to and prove that she, in fact, is the better fighter.
Stoick is actually a villain in disguise at this point, whilst Astrid is an ally in the shape of a villain. She seems “bad” because she’s the one who makes us nervous. We are protective of our hero, and don’t want his secret found out. But in truth, being found out is exactly what Hiccup needs.
The cheat sheet Hiccup uses to steer Toothless is also worth mentioning, having highly symbolic value. Hiccup has always taken instruction from outer forces on how to steer his life. Riding Toothless, he has a physical one. Using the cheat sheet, he keeps bumping into obstacles.
When he drops the sheet, however, he’s forced to rely on his instincts. As it turns out, they are brilliant. He’s just never trusted them before.
Hiccup’s actual identity is shining through. It’s been made clear that he’s not a dragon fighter. But could he possibly be a dragon rider? And on top of that, could he be a leader?
Sequence E: Midpoint (10.20mins)
45.55 Eating with Toothless, other dragons join. “Everything we know about you guys, is wrong.”
47.10 Proud, Stoick gives Hiccup a real Viking’s helmet.
50.00 Hiccup wins the prize of killing a dragon.
51.00 Hiccup is about to flee with Toothless. Astrid finds them.
52.00 Hiccups tries to make a frightened Astrid understand. “Let me show you”.
53.30 They fly, Toothless messing with Astrid before settling into a beautiful ride. Astrid: “It’s… amazing. He’s amazing.”
We’ve arrived at the point in How to train your dragon where everything turns into something different. Everything.
Interacting with other dragons, Hiccup realizes that Toothless is not just a nice exception amongst a brutal race. He’s one out of many misunderstood, lovable, creatures. “Everything we know about you guys, is wrong.”
A proud Stoick presents Hiccup with a viking helmet, which says that he’s now one of them. Carrying the symbol of a viking warrior on his head, Hiccup is given the identity he’s always wished for.
So far, lying at dragon training has been a piece of cake. But now, being the best fighter, Hiccup must prepare to actually kill a dragon in front of his tribe. Something he’s incapable of doing.
Another drastic change takes shape as Hiccup and Toothless are discovered by Astrid. Although she’s highly reluctant, Hiccup shows her a world she could’ve never imagined. A world where dragons and vikings don’t kill each other on sight.
By trying too hard to be someone he’s not, Hiccup hasn’t won even an ounce of respect from Astrid. It’s not until he’s forced to drop his facade, that he wins her admiration. Astrid hasn’t actually disliked him, because she’s never met the real Hiccup before.
Hiccup has found identity at this point. The problem is, there’s two of them. At the one hand, he’s got the viking helmet and the respect of his father. At the other, Toothless and the respect of Astrid.
The day when he must slay a dragon is approaching, and until then, he must pick one.
Sequence F: The big reveal (10.15mins)
56.15 Toothless takes Hiccup and Astrid to the nest. “What my dad wouldn’t give to find this.”
58.20 A dragon “queen” tyrants the nest, controlling the other dragons.
58.50 Hiccup convinces Astrid not to tell anyone about the the nest.
59.30 Astrid punches Hiccup “That’s for kidnapping me”, kiss on the cheek “that’s for everything else.“
60.00 Stoick’s proud speech: “Today, my boy becomes a Viking.”
62.25 The dragon fight: Hiccup throws off his Viking helmet, refusing to kill. “I’m not one of them.”
62.50 The crowd’s furious racket scares the dragon into violence.
62.55 Toothless hears Hiccup screaming and defies his injuries to come for aid.
64.20 Hiccup stops Toothless from killing Stoick. Toothless is captured.
64.50 Stoick’s furious: “They’ve killed hundreds of us!” Hiccup: “And we’ve killed thousands of them.”
65.35 Hiccup accidentally mentions that Toothless can lead them to the nest.
66.00 Hiccup begs Stoick not to hurt the dragons “For once in your life, would you please listen to me?”
66.10 Stoick: “You’re not a Viking. You’re not my son.”
The vital “eye-opener” of How to train your dragon has arrived. This is where we see the revealing of secrets and the finding of lost things.
We start out with two revelations right off the bat, as Hiccup and Astrid are shown the lost-for-centuries dragon nest and the queen hidden inside. Suddenly, we have a new, bigger, badder, villain. Even the dragons flee from this dragon. If you’re only human, you better watch out.
Coming back from dragon island, a vital step is taken by our hero as he openly trusts his own judgement above someone else’s. Astrid is frustrated that Hiccup wishes to keep the location of the island a secret, but respecting his never-before-seen assuredness, she accepts his decision.
It’s time for the big fight. Hiccup must choose whether to uphold his image and kill a dragon or to reveal himself and lose his newfound respect.
This is where we see proof of how far the hero of How to train your dragon has come. He makes the decision to throw his viking helmet aside in front of his entire tribe, stating “I am not one of them”.
The secret has been revealed. He, Hiccup, is not a viking. He is not, and never will be, an enemy of the dragons. Ready to lose everything, he admits his true identity in pursuit of uniting two races.
His attempt to prove the dragon race innocent backfires as the dragon is provoked into violence. This leads to the next revelation: Toothless.
Hearing that Hiccup’s in danger, Toothless too risks everything to come for aid. The always hidden dragon, the one nobody’s ever seen, positions itself in the midst of a sea of dangerous vikings.
Toothless withdraws from killing Stoick, trusting Hiccup’s judgement before his own, and is therefore captured.
Having won his own respect, although lost everyone else’s, Hiccup can finally stand strong against his father. He begs Stoick not to hurt the dragons. “For once in your life, would you please just listen to me?”
Stoick, truthful to his name and image, doesn’t listen, and decides to use Toothless in an attempt to find the nest.
“You’re not a viking. You’re not my son.”
Sequence G: Grim defeat (9.20mins)
66.30 Hiccup watches his tribe depart to find the nest, Toothless brutally tethered to a ship.
67.45 Astrid: “You’ve lost everything. Your father, your tribe, your friend.”
68.20 Astrid encourages Hiccup into forming a plan.
69.25 Vikings follow Toothless across the ocean.
70.30 Hiccup gathers the other kids to let them in on his plan.
71.10 The vikings arrive at Dragon Island.
71.50 Hiccup shows the other kids that they have nothing to fear from the dragons.
73.00 Stoick cracks the mountain open, find the nest and fight off a storm of dragons.
74.15 The queen arrives; much bigger than the other dragons combined.
75.00 The queen sets fire to the boats, one with Toothless onboard.
75.15 The Vikings are loosing.
Hiccup watches his tribe, along with his dragon, fade before him as Astrid says out loud: “You’ve lost everything. Your father, your tribe, your friend.”
Back to feeling worthless, Hiccup’s ashamed to be the first viking who wouldn’t, not couldn’t, kill a dragon. Astrid, who’s had a change of heart due to Hiccup’s journey, sees this as an accomplishment rather than a failure. “First to ride one though”.
Encouraged, Hiccup gathers his team of fighters. From this point on, he has nothing left to lose. For once, he doesn’t care if he’s perceived as crazy or stupid for acting on his beliefs.
Although the all is lost-moment of How to train your dragon is short; it’s elongated through the storylines of Stoick and Toothless. Since it’s Hiccup’s goal to unite the two species, Stoick’s success in finding the island and cracking the nest open, is a continued failure for Hiccup. Even though he’s not in the scene.
We do feel a glimmer of hope, having seen Hiccup take charge and gain respect from the other kids. Even so, we’re at a dark part of the story. After a false victory for the Vikings, having beaten off the dragons, the queen appears.
Nastier than any threat before, Stoick and the tribe aren’t equipped to fight this dragon. Furthermore, the boats are burning, Toothless still onboard, and they’re trapped on dragon island.
Hiccup’s father, friend and tribe are all heading for death.
75.50 The kids arrive on dragons, using their acquired fighting skills against the queen.
78.10 Hiccup fails to free Toothless, who’s sinking.
78.35 Stoick rescues Toothless. Toothless pulls him out of the water.
79.00 Stoick begs Hiccup’s forgiveness: “I’m proud to call you my son.”
80.20 Riding Toothless, Hiccup lures the queen up in the air. They aim for the wings.
82.10 Toothless is hit by fire and his prosthetic fin burns.
82.25 In a last effort, Toothless kills the queen whilst shooting down towards the earth, creating a massive explosion.
83.15 As Hiccup falls off, Toothless follow him into the explosion.
83.45 Stoick find Toothless in the smoke, hurt but alive. Stoick: “I did this.”
84.15 Believing Hiccup to be dead, the tribe is mourning.
84.45 Toothless lifts his wing, revealing Hiccup underneath.
84.50 Stoick throws off his viking’s helmet to listen to Hiccup’s heart. He’s alive.
85.15 Stoick thanks Toothless.
A while back, Hiccup had to sit at his own table in the dining hall. The first time we see Hiccup in this sequence, he’s surrounded by friends who not only accept, but follow him. Not because they’ve changed, but because he has.
Watching Hiccup and his friends arrive on dragons to fight the queen, Stoick is faced with hard evidence that dragons and vikings can work together. He is forced to admit his ignorance. Finally, he’s proud of Hiccup for the right reasons.
Trusting Hiccup’s judgement, Stoick rescues the dragon he’s been trying to kill for years. This is the moment when Hiccup is no longer ashamed to call himself a viking. Through Stoick’s heart-felt apology, Hiccup realizes that it’s possible to be both a good person and a viking. He doesn’t need to choose one or the other.
Hiccup and Toothless act as one being, as they use everything they’ve learnt to defeat the queen. Even though they succeed, they use every ounce of power they have, and end up falling to the ground.
Let’s rewind for a second, to the moment when Hiccup found Toothless wounded in the woods. Looking down at the dragon, he claimed “I did this”, showing the regret that would cause his future change.
Look at what happens now, when Stoick runs up to the wounded dragon. He stops, and looks at Toothless, saying “I did this.” Can it be, that Stoick is changing as well?
Remember the helmet Hiccup got from his father? The one he threw on the ground as a sign he was no longer a viking? Consider what Stoick does when he believes his son to be dead. He throws his helmet off. Why? To, literally, listen to Hiccup’s heart. This moment is so significant.
Suddenly, something else is more important than being a viking. He throws his image in the mud, so that he can listen to his son. This is Stoick’s journey. He is not just a viking, he is a father.
The last time Hiccup dared show his father what was really on his heart, he was ignored – “For once in your life, would you please just listen to me?” This time, Stoick listens. Hiccup is alive.
To top off Stoick’s character-change, Hiccup has gotten him to change his attitude towards an entire species. Not long ago, Stoick saw Toothless as the devil himself. Now he leans down beside him to, sincerely, thank him.
One member of each race, a boy and a dragon, has questioned the way they see each other. Now, the remainder of both species are following in their footsteps, hence ending a seemingly endless war.
85.25 Hiccup wakes up back home, Toothless at his side.
86.10 Having lost a leg in the battle, Toothless helps him walk.
86.55 Going outside, he finds dragons and vikings living alongside one another.
87.20 Hiccup is greeted with admiration by the other vikings.
87.25 Stoick points at Hiccup: “All we needed was a little of… this.”
87.40 Gobber has created a new invention for Hiccup’s prosthetic leg to fit into Toothless steering gear.
87.45 Astrid punches him: “That’s for scaring me.” She kisses him, for everything else.
88.10 Hiccup flies Toothless, alongside his friends.
88.20 V.O: “This is Berk…”
88.55 THE END
Hiccup wakes up, back in the village. The same place where it all began. But is it the same?
The first sign that something has changed, is that Toothless is inside his house. Scared for the dragon’s safety, Hiccup gets up to hide him. Only, he can’t get up, having lost one of his legs.
The symbolism of this cannot be over-stated.
Because of Hiccup, Toothless lost a tail-fin. Hiccup then helped the dragon fly without it. Now, because of Toothless, Hiccup has lost a foot. When he can’t walk, Toothless steadies him. If one crashes, so does the other. And if one can still get forward, then so can the other.
Together, they leave home – one with one leg, one with one tail fin – no one able to function without the other.
Everything is different. In the initial scene of How to train your dragon, we witness a rough world of raging war. Now, we see a fantastic place where vikings and dragons live in unison.
Rewarded for his bravery, Hiccup wins a kiss from Astrid, along with respect and admiration from his tribe. Gobber has even built him special equipment, so that his prosthetic leg fits perfectly into the steering gear of Toothless’ prosthetic fin.
Stoick proudly gestures towards his son “Turns out all we needed, was a little more of… this.”
So who, really, is Hiccup?
He is not a worthless toothpick, he’s not a blacksmith or a baker and he’s not a dragonfighter. Hiccup is a brave viking, a fierce leader, and a bringer of peace.
Furthermore, at his heart, Hiccup is a dragon rider.
Camilla Beskow is a screenwriter, and former student at the Gotland based film school Storyutbildningen. Among her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth and Good Will Hunting.