Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, writers and directors of the new animated film, How to Train Your Dragon, worked many layers into their animated story of a boy who makes friends with his mortal enemy. I recently sat down with them to discuss the making of the film.
Set in an old Viking village in which all the buildings are new, new because they're constantly destroyed by fearsome dragons, the story follows the teen weakling Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). The son of chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), Hiccup desperately wants to battle dragons but is hindered by his nonexistent muscle tone. He's upstaged by burly Snotlout, twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut, and the battle-ready cutie Astrid (America Ferrera). However, when Hiccup has the astounding and unexpected success of downing a Night Fury dragon, he finds to his dismay he's more dragon whisperer than dragon slayer.
"For a minute," said Sanders, "he saw himself in the eyes of his enemy, and that involuntary act of compassion is what ultimately sets in motion the domino effect that will solve the conflict and change the world."
Hiccup and his new friend Toothless the Dragon set off to end the ancient war between mankind and dragonkind. Hiccup's father, a large, square specimen of Viking power, can't imagine laying aside his battle-axe and horned helmet to follow his son's lead. "Stoick has a huge responsibility," said Sanders. "He has to keep this tribe alive. He has to lead these guys. And whenever Hiccup gets out to try to kill a dragon, he just causes more trouble than if he would just stay where he's supposed to stay."
Sanders and DeBlois never present Stoick as mean and ugly. He loves his son but does not understand him. Their conversations are touchingly awkward, a feeling to which many parents of tweens or teens can relate. It makes a more nuanced father-son tension than is often seen in kids' movies.
"We had a moment where we knew we would have to put on the screen, which is Stoick effectively disowning his son," explained DeBlois. "We wanted to take it to the line so there really is something to repair, but at the same time we didn't want to make him so unlikable so that the audience doesn't forgive Stoick. It came down to a very subtle performance on the part of Gerard Butler and on the part of Stoick's animator, Kristof [Serrand]. He imbued it with such heartbreaking delivery that Gerard was actually crying when he said it. And the animator put a quiver in his step and you could tell he was falling apart as he was saying the words. So you understood what the father was doing and how upset he was and that he was going to regret what he was saying but how in that moment he had to say it."
Sanders added, "He really goes through a magnificent change in the film. In order to do that, you have to start him in a place where he may at times feel a little unlikable. And that's OK, because when he changes it makes it that much better."
The film, rated PG, gets its laughs from its characters and situations, not from inappropriate jokes. A few sequences might be intense for sensitive kids, but the average grade-school child will not be overwhelmed. The film is a lot of fun, and it has scenes of beautiful soaring on the back of a dragon that are sure to fire a child's imagination.
DeBlois would like kids to come away with the idea "that strengths come in many packages. What might be perceived as weakness from other people very might well be strength, a transformative strength. But, we just want people to be transported and have a really great time. Because that's what we love about movies. It's definitely what I loved as a kid. Being able to go to another place for a while and live that world for a little bit. That's A-number-one for me."