They kill dragons. In fact, that is considered the rite of passage to become a warrior — to have slain your first dragon. All the training for all the children leads toward that first “kill”, so the newly initiated can join the perpetual fight against the dreaded nemeses of their little isolated fishing village.
Knowing he’s not going to overcome a fire-breathing dragon with mere brute strength, Hiccup devises a crude sling weapon, and in the fury of the battle actually hits one, though nobody believes him in the post-aftermath chaos. When he goes alone to search for his wounded prey, he finds that he just can’t finish him off. “Toothless” (who actually has retractable teeth), lying there bound and wounded, seems too vulnerable, too pitiable — too much like himself.
Hiccup returns to the wilderness daily to tend the wounds of the “night dragon” who is at first wary, but then is glad to accept the food. Hiccup, ever the experimental inventor, devises a mechanical tail section to replace the one Toothless lost in the battle. But Toothless can’t fly without Hiccup working the controls (like a leather aileron). And Hiccup, of course, can’t fly without riding on the back of Toothless. And thus begins a very unlikely friendship between former foes.
The young lad learns much about the dragons that is the opposite of everything he was taught. They’re not all fierce predators, they do have feelings, they do have weak spots, they are capable of affection, and they are much more intelligent than anybody thought. This new knowledge helps Hiccup in his dragon-slayer training, but all the other students can tell that he’s different from the rest of them. Soon, everybody wonders how he knows all this stuff about dragons, and finally, after a spectacularly unsuccessful hunting foray, Stoick wonders, as well.
Who knew that the dragons were really drones, like bees, under the thrall of the true monster in the fiery volcanic cave? Will our geeky little hero find a way to help his hapless tribe? Will he get the girl? Will he finally earn the respect of his father? Well, even though we all know how it’s going to end, it’s fun to get there, and there are still a few surprises along the way.
“How To Train Your Dragon” is not only cute and sweet, as expected in an animated film where children are the main characters, but also surprisingly sensitive and intelligent, as if all life on the planet is precious, and worthy of discovering on its own terms, and worth embracing. Of course, the theology is not exactly Christian (“Thank Odin”?), but the religious sentiment is similar, as long as you can tolerate the truly diverse ecumenical tension.
“How To Train Your Dragon” is that cinematic species as rare as a dragon: fun for the whole family.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.