Some very Scottish vikings live in a constant state of war with the dragons breathing down their necks, until the chief’s son (Jay Baruchel) encounters a peaceful dragon and proves there’s more to the Norse than brute force.
Based on the book by Cressida Cowell, this 2010 animation is a dog movie in all but species like E.T. or Sammy, the Way-Out Seal. It feels like a film we’ve seen before, since the young protagonist is to dragons as Arthur Christmas is to Christmas. But the tame script (co-written by Twins scribe Will Davies) lacks both the heart and humour of Aardman, so short on jokes it’s more like How I Trained Your Dragon.
DreamWorks’ animation is brilliant in terms of character design, engrossing environments and aerial action, elevating a predictable story through its Avatar-like scale and talonted voice cast. Craig Ferguson, David Tennant and Ashley Jensen provide authentic Scottish voices, though there is something deeply patronising about the younger, modern characters having American accents.
The point is to highlight a break from tradition, showing children the importance of challenging received wisdom even if the older generations don’t want to hear it. This makes the movie much more interesting politically than it is emotionally, entering the realm of animal allegory à la Animal Farm (not to be confused with Animal House), Planet of the Apes and Zootropolis.
There’s a relevant lesson in the outcast hero recognising himself in a species considered by his community to be monstrous and adversarial, adding themes of difference, disability and animal welfare to the kid-friendly fantasy larks. It’s a film to make you vegan (see also Chicken Run and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), championing coexistence over captivity and cooperation over conquering.
That means coexisting with other viewpoints as well as other species, making How to Train Your Dragon an old tail with contemporary bite.