On the surface, DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon is a fantasy story about a young boy who befriends a dragon and goes off on a wild and exciting adventure. But that’s just the surface read. This isn’t a fantastical tale of Vikings and mythical creatures as much as it’s a touching and beautiful examination of what it’s like to be a pet owner. There are countless movies about boys and their dogs, but somehow, it took a movie about a boy and his dragon to actually get it right.
Those dragons are a sly combination of cats and dogs.
If there’s any doubt out there that Toothless and the other dragons who feature in How to Train Your Dragon are stand-ins for ordinary household pets, just look at how they’re animated. Rather than move like dinosaurs or reptiles (as is common for this type of movie), the dragons move with light-footed elegance of cats… and with their trademark clumsiness. Anyone who has ever owned a cat will nod with recognition at the sequence where Toothless trashes an entire room while attempting to slyly move about. What’s especially interesting is how the dragons are also given key dog features. They may walk like felines, but they have the eager-to-please goofiness of dogs. These dragons aren’t mythical beasts — they’re the best features of the two most popular animals in the world combined into one creature and given wings. There’s a reason you fall in love with the dragons so quickly in the movie. They are, on a conscious or subconscious level, reminding you of domestic pets.
The story of Toothless is that of an adopted animal.
The fact that Toothless is pretty much every dog or cat you’ve ever owned makes his relationship with Hiccup all the more touching. Many people who have adopted a dog from a shelter will see truth in the early scenes of the movie where our young hero works to earn the trust of his traumatized dragon. Animals end up at shelters for a variety of reasons, but many of them come from troubled or abusive homes, where they lived on the defensive and quickly learned not to trust people. There is a lot of truth to the scenes where Hiccup works to earn Toothless’ trust and the fact that they’re not instantly best buddies is shockingly honest writing and filmmaking. Toothless is adorable and wonderful and rightfully one of DreamWorks’ most popular creations, but the film doesn’t treat him or his transformation with kids’ gloves. Rehabilitating an animal is hard work… but it’s worth it.
It’s all about the unconditional love.
The best scenes in How to Train Your Dragon are the flight scenes. They’re gorgeous. They’re thrilling. They’re transportive. But they also represent Hiccup and Toothless operating in sync through mutual trust and, yes, unconditional love. People don’t adopt animals because they want to pay vet bills and buy expensive bags of food. They bring an animal into their life because we crave companionship. More than that, we crave love. Dogs and (although they don’t like to show it) cats provide no-strings-attached affection. You take care of them and they take care of you. When an animal clicks with you, you develop a shorthand. How often have you come home from a bad day at work only for your dog to be extra loving? When you suffer a nasty breakup, how often has your cat comforted you? It would be silly to say that your dog or cat would let you ride them into battle, but they would risk themselves to help you when you’re in harm’s way.
Well, your dog would. Your cat would comfort you if you survived.
The movie knows that pets are hilarious.
But the real joy for pet lovers in How to Train Your Dragon is in the details. There are countless tiny ways that the dragons in the film conjure memories of your own little beasts, but there’s one aspect that it nails that most animal-centric films completely ignore: pets are hilarious. Cats flip out over the most innocuous things. Dogs always overestimate their agility. They roll over and make funny faces. They get in shouting matches with potted plants. Dogs and cats alike spend the bulk of their time not quite understanding the world they live in and it’s, quite frankly, never not amusing. The amount of observational and often gentle comedy in How to Train Your Dragon is refreshing — it treats its dragons like animals to such an extent that it allows them to be big goofballs. The pet experience has never been depicted more accurately.
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