How To Train Your Dragon: A nice surprise!

We watched How To Train Your Dragon at the recommendation of my friend alianora. She’s a fellow geeky mom with high standards for female characters in entertainment, and she had nice things to say about the gal in this movie, so I figured we were safe to jump in and watch it as a family one Friday night.

In case you haven’t heard about it, the movie tells of a young scrawny Viking boy named Hiccup (yes, really) who desperately wants to prove his competence by killing one of the dragons who continually attack his village. His dad’s the head Viking, so that’s some pressure, and also Hiccup wants a girlfriend so he figures killing a dragon would help.

One of his inventions does bring down a dragon, the terrifying kind that no Viking has even seen and lived to tell the tale. But when Hiccup goes to find the dragon he’s captured, his life gets a lot more complicated. It turns out the dragons aren’t out to get the Vikings after all. He allies first with fellow dragon-fighting trainee and crush-object Astrid, then with other members of his class, to get to the root of the war and stop it for good.

So we’re going to talk about Astrid and the other female characters here, because the portrayal of women and girls in action roles is my thing. But we’re also going to talk about the portrayal of people with disabilities in this movie, because that was the nice surprise I was not expecting when we sat down to watch this movie.

Here’s what’s good about Astrid: she is tough, smart, and motivated by a strong desire to save her community. This girl is dead serious about fighting this war, for reasons much better than Hiccup’s. If you told me she ended up leading the village in 20 years, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. There’s a lot more to her than being Hiccup’s object of desire. The film even seems to be commenting on that by portraying her through his eyes in a very Glamor Shot sequence early in the film before he knows her… and then not as he (and the audience) meet her for real.

I also liked that as Hiccup clumsily tried to manage revealing his secrets to her, she deviated from my expectations and did not ultimately betray him to the village. After her continuous challenges to his devotion to the community, I assumed she would notify the adults in an honest attempt to save her people. She actually does try, and there’s some extensive back and forth between her and Hiccup and the dragon – including the dragon putting her in a tree so she can’t leave, which is uncool – before she agrees to be part of the team, so to speak. At that point, I expected her to go right back to the village and tell them anyway. That would set the stage for her to apologize to Hiccup later and demonstrate how right he was and how wrong she had been. Instead, she keeps her promise. She sees what he sees, that there is a way to end the war for good, and that’s her top priority. And even though Hiccup is the lead character, after this point they work more as equals in the project to stop the war.

My biggest complaint about her portrayal, honestly, is that I could also have lived without her tendency to punch Hiccup and then kiss him. We should really be past showing physical violence between romantic partners on film as funny (except in contexts where both people clearly are agreeing to it and having fun.) Hiccup is most certainly not.

Unfortunately, Astrid is practically alone as a female Viking. There is one other girl in the training class, who functions as part of a set with her twin brother. We see almost no female Viking adults, even during the movie’s opening scene where the village is attacked and you’d think all hands would be on deck to keep everything from being stolen or burned down. Hiccup’s mother is dead. So without any other female characters, Astrid’s role as the love interest becomes more annoying. Of the two girls in class, she’s the pretty one, so she’s Hiccup’s destiny. And as C-Man pointed out, which I had missed: she gets the pretty dragon.

My overall feeling is this: would I have been happier with additional female characters? Yes. Would I be delighted to have more films where the pretty girl is not set up as the love interest, but instead is just another character? Absolutely. Would I have preferred seeing another girl in the class who was bigger than Hiccup? Oh my yes. They’re training to fight dragons, people! But within the confines of the predictable plot, I thought Astrid herself was a good effort at having a supporting female character be a human being first, and a love interest second.

Feelings about her are mixed. It’s understandable because we get so few girl characters, we have a lot riding on the ones we get, and their plots are so repetitive. I particularly enjoyed these takes on her and on the film:

Moving on, let’s talk about the portrayal of disability in this movie. Wow! First of all, there IS a portrayal of disability in this movie, which is far more than I can say for most films. (And children’s books. Don’t get me started on the almost non-existence of people with disabilities in children’s books. We’ll be here all day.)

Hiccup is apprenticed to the village blacksmith / trainer Gobber the Belch, a man who lost a hand and a foot in the war. He’s built himself prosthetics so he can go on about his business, and he fights just as well as any of the other warriors. And (trying to avoid spoilers here) this is exactly the approach the community seems to have with physical disability. Here’s a problem, let’s solve it, now back to your life! When one of the dragons, and then one of the human characters experiences a disabling injury, we do get to see the initial shock the character feels, but other characters don’t react as though this is a horrible tragedy that will ruin his life. Instead, let’s get something together to help this person, and there we go.

This was so refreshing!

Do you know how many times in mainstream movies a character is disabled, and it’s not the whole thing about their character? How often do characters go into a bank, or a convenience store, or a restaurant, and you see a person with a disability? Almost never. So having three characters with disabilities in this film who are just part of the community’s day-to-day life, using appropriate technology to help them do what they want, is pretty amazing.

I did a quick Google Search to check my reaction against the reactions of people with disabilities, since they obviously have more knowledge than I do on this topic. Searching for “how to train your dragon disability” basically made the internet explode with happy dances about this film. Here’s a selection:

Obviously nothing’s perfect, and no one’s saying it is, but the overwhelming consensus seems to be that How To Train Your Dragon does right by its characters on this issue. Is this the only way to address disability respectfully in film? Nope. But it’s one way, and I was grateful to see it.

So overall, I would give How To Train Your Dragon three stars on scale for my old movie blog Heroine Content, meaning “Strong Contender.” With more female characters and some ethnic diversity*, it could have gone to four stars.

* Yes, I know they’re supposed to be Vikings, but it’s also a movie about DRAGONS. If you break out the magic, you don’t get the “historical accuracy” defense!

14 thoughts on “How To Train Your Dragon: A nice surprise!

  1. Colleen Pence

    This is a family favorite of ours, for all of the great reasons you mentioned. I loved, too, how the main character built a prosthesis to help his injured dragon friend. :)

  2. Julie

    I LOVED this movie. It is not just a kid’s movie at all. I never thought about the portrayal of the female character. Yes, a lot of it is cliche, but I focused on the overall message and the interaction between the boy and Toothless.

  3. Pary Moppins

    My daughter has read the whole Hiccup Horrendous Haddock books. Cressida Cowell has written some great stuff for younger children as well as that series. My daughter thought the movie was okay but not at all like the book so I can’t say whether or not the female lead in the book is as strong as the one in the movie. Do check out the books though. :)

  4. alianora

    Yay! I’m glad you liked it! And yes, there are definitely problems with the female to male ratio as well as the other issues you brought up with Astrid being the pretty one of the two girls available. But remember, the female representation in the books is even WORSE, which is disturbing. Plus, here there be Toothless and decent representation of people with disabilities!

  5. Christine

    I really had not thought about the portrayal of females in this movie. My son loved this movie, and we watched it right along with him. Having it brought to my attention, makes me appreciate the movie on other levels, too. Stumbling:)

  6. Skye

    Colleen, absolutely, Hiccup’s ingenuity taking care of his friend is fantastic.

    Julie, I agree, the overall message and that relationship is just wonderful. I had a good time watching the movie for sure.

    Pary and alianora, I had definitely heard the book and movie were quite different, and most people seem to think the female character(s) got an upgrade so I’m cool with that. Patti I do definitely recommend it.

    Christine, I’ve had book and movie experiences like that too, where you realize something you like is even more awesome – yay for that! And thanks for the Stumble! :)

  7. Stephanie Cox

    Thanks for sharing your review. As someone who is picky about what movies I watch since I have very little extra time, it’s good to know what movies are worth watching and which ones aren’t.

  8. Nicky

    This is a fun movie. We have it on Blu-ray and the kids watch it often. I hadn’t thought about the lack of female characters in the film. That gives me something to ponder. I agree that portrayal of characters with disabilities with a good one. From the blacksmith to ,ultimately Hiccup himself, everyone has a role to play within the village and they contribute to the community regardless of what their disability is.

  9. Skye

    Stephanie, I’ve had a hard time figuring out which kid movies are worth the time, so hope this helped.

    Nicky and Shirley, it’s just so rare that I see more than one character with a disability in a kids’ book or movie, and to have them be treated just like anyone else, it’s was a real treat.

    Aimee do give it another shot. Even the grownups here had a good time watching it.

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