How to Tell a Story: Why How to Train Your Dragon Works so Well

It seems that Dreamworks Animation has always been the animation company in Pixar‘s shadow. While Pixar was creating films like Ratatouille and Wall-E, Dreamworks produced Shrek the Third and Kung Fu Panda. Not to say that Kung Fu Panda was bad (unlike Shrek the Third), it was just a much more simple story. Dreamworks simply was not producing animated films that contained the same amount of layers as their Pixar counterparts. In 2010, Dreamworks Animation made How to Train Your Dragon while Pixar created Toy Story 3. Yes, Pixar made the better film that year. That said, Dreamworks Animation took a giant step forward as How to Train Your Dragon became one of their greatest films produced. The story was just as simple and uninspired as any of their animated products, yet How to Train Your Dragon proves that quality is found not just in the story, but in how it is told.

First, what is the story in How to Train Your Dragon? As I said before, it is very standard: at its heart, How to Train Your Dragon is about an outcast boy growing up and learning to accept/believe in himself, and how that belief and acceptance catapulted him into much stronger social standing. This is a plot that has been before in animated films. At least once:

An outcast street-rat learns the value in being true to himself and becomes sultan of a fictional land (with some non-human assistance in the form of a genie.)
An outcast street-rat learns the value in being true to himself and becomes sultan of a fictional land (with some non-human assistance in the form of a genie).

Or twice:

An outcast learns to accept the true strength of his character in order to become a hero (with the non-human assistance of a satyr).
An outcast learns to accept the true strength of his character in order to become a hero (with the non-human assistance of a satyr).

And like, say by Dreamworks the year before:

An outcast learns to be true to himself and becomes the dragon warrior/hero (with the non-human assistance of a turtle and a red panda).
An outcast learns to be true to himself and becomes the dragon warrior/hero (with the non-human assistance of a turtle and a red panda).

So stories like this are nothing new to the world of animated feature films. Yes, every one of the movies mentioned dresses their story in a different way but all of those films share the same heart. However, these three films also help to illustrate my point: it matters how the story is told. It is possible to like only one of those movies and detest the other two. With How to Train Your Dragon, the strength of the movie lies in its character relationships.

Every story needs vehicles in order to function. The protagonist, the antagonist, the supporting characters, the conflict: every story possesses (at least most of) these traits. The difference between good stories and bad ones is how well these vehicles are disguised. A good writer/storyteller can dress fiction to be real life. In my article criticizing Star Wars Episode II, I (endeavored to) explained that the main reason that the relationship between Anakin and Padme failed was because it appeared as a plot focus and not as an actual relationship between two people. How to Train Your Dragon avoids this pitfall.

One of the main triumphs to examine is Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler). He is Hiccup’s father and one of (if not the) main antagonist in the story. In a children’s movie, where simple storytelling is sometimes favored, it would be very easy to leave Stoick as simply that: the antagonist. Hiccup’s father who never listens, a bloodthirsty viking looking to kill dragons. Instead, writers William Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders create a complex relationship between Hiccup and Stoick that feels very real (even in a movie that is about taming dragons).

Hiccup has the revelation of where his mindless violent tendencies lead…

At the heart of their conflict is not an argument over what direction to take the plot (to kill dragons or not to kill dragons) but instead the simple problem of communication. Stoick and Hiccup do not know how to communicate with one another. They are both headstrong and stubborn (illustrating similar qualities helps enforce the family connection) and they simply have a hard time relating to one another. Yet throughout the movie it is illustrated that, while the two have their differences, they are a family who loves each other. This adds weight to the conflict and enhances the scenes between them.

…Much earlier than Stoick does.

Another strong point is, obviously, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. Both Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois created Lilo and Stitch and it is no surprise to see the same quality of human-sentient animal relationship in this film. Toothless is not simply a dragon but brims with personality, which allows Hiccup to exhibit personality as well. If Toothless were simply a dragon (a beast without intelligence), the plot of the film could still proceed but its content would have been weakened greatly.

The animators realized a creature who could fully communicate without speech.
The animators realized a creature who could fully communicate without speech.

One final relationship I will mention is Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera). Yes, Astrid does serve as the love interest, but she is also a character with her own personality. She is revealed to be determined and methodical. There are also several scenes demonstrating her capabilities as a warrior. This gives her personality so that, when she does fall in love with Hiccup, the audience can understand the reason why.

Astrid spends most of the movie with axe in hand.
Astrid spends most of the movie with axe in hand.

How to Train Your Dragon is not the best animated film ever by a long shot, but it is a well-made film. There is much more here done right than wrong. The film never panders down to its child audience, never embraces the more flashy-dancey tendencies of other Dreamworks’ films, never does anything to sacrifice story or character. It is part of the proof that it matters more how a story is told, rather than what its content is.

PS – the sequel isn’t bad either.

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