Last week I accompanied my wife and two-year-old daughter to see How to Train Your Dragon at a local movie theater. The best part was that the movie was free (Danville Cinemas plays a kiddie movie every Wednesday morning during the summer). I think this was one of my favorite recent animated films – much better than Cars, Madagascar, or Monsters vs. Aliens (in my opinion, anyways…). Of course, I can’t just simply sit back and enjoy a movie. I have to analyze it for its implicit political or social commentary.
I understood How to Train Your Dragon as a denunciation of racism or other forms of out-group prejudice. The film’s plot features two competing groups: Vikings and dragons. The first part of the movie depicts the story from the point of view of the Vikings: dragons are blood-thirsty killers and they need to be defeated at all costs. We slowly learn, however, that the dragons are being controlled by a dragon “queen” (like in a bee colony) and acting out of self-defense. They’re actually harmless and docile once the dragon queen is out of the picture. The transformation to the point of view of the dragons is illustrated through the main character Hiccup. Over the course of the film, he learns to overcome his fear of dragons by spending time with one. He learns that they have a lot in common and that they’re not so bad “once you get to know them.” He also learns to identify with the out-group (dragons). When he first encounters a dragon, he has the opportunity to kill it, but doesn’t. He later reveals that he couldn’t do it because the dragon “looked as afraid as I was. I looked into his eyes, and I saw myself.” This similar message has been repeated several times over the last several decades in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s: “we hate what we don’t understand” and “we become friends once we get to know them, because we’re all really alike deep down inside.”
Second, I understood this movie as an endorsement of science over tradition and prejudice. As Hiccup befriends and learns from his dragon (“Toothless”), he comes to realize that the information that his culture has on dragons is completely incorrect. (“Everything we know about you guys is wrong!”) Using the scientific tool of observation, he learns a great deal about dragon biology and behavior. Hiccup is constantly carrying his notebook and pencil around with him, making notes about the things he observes. He ultimately uses this knowledge to save the day and help “domesticate” the dragons. For generations, the Vikings had been relying on false information, traditions, and prejudices in their dealings with the dragons. Hiccup is able to change things by rejecting the false traditions and basing his methods on empirical scientific observation. In essence, the movie teaches kids that it’s cool (and useful!) to be a scientist.