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Four Reasons I Loved ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” makes me long for the day dragons will return.
| Feb 26, 2019 | 24 comments |

Both previous How to Train Your Dragon films showed how peaceful-warrior humans can help redeem nature. The third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, brings the film series to a beautiful landing.

This was basically what I hoped. And by the end, yep, I was enjoying my joyful weeping. Here’s why. Beware spoilers.

1. The villains portray man’s abuse of good creation stewardship.

To review, this story follows a group of fantasy Vikings, led by Hiccup. A chief’s son, he starts as an awkward teen, grows into an explorer, and finally becomes chief of his tribe. Hiccup is the first Viking to find that dragons aren’t always wicked creatures. Dragons don’t only raid villages to destroy property and steal sheep. Rather, if humans respect these creatures, and train them, they can become the most amazing pets ever.

Some viewers see this as a questionable “environmental” message. It’s not. Possibly by incident, these stories simply reflect how God designed humans as his regents to steward and “train” God’s creation:

In the first How to Train Your Dragon film, man and creation must reconcile. By the story’s end, Vikings and dragons have learned to work together and find redemption. Yet man has not simply become “at one with nature,” as if wild nature is superior. Instead man has stopped sinning against nature and become a better nature-steward. The meaning is right there in the title: it’s not “how to be trained by your dragon,” but “how to train your dragon.”1

But all along, each story has wrestled with some kind of terrible evil that threatens peaceful-Viking/dragon reconciliation.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World Christian reviewIn film 1, our heroes fought a twisted and gluttonous monster-dragon, which had enslaved smaller members of its own species.

In film 2, our heroes fought a monstrous human dragon-master, Drago Bludvist. Rather than befriending and training dragons, he used primal tactics to control the beasts, and to trap or kill his opponents.

Then in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, our heroes confront Grimmel the Grisly, a dragon-hunter who exterminates whole species.

In any of these cases, the villain is not some simplistic “big business” type of stereotype. It’s a human (one exception: a monster-dragon) who has abused his power. Instead of acting as a righteous “chief” over his tribe, or his creatures, he hates them. He controls them. He uses raw power, the kind that Jesus condemned the Gentiles for using, to “lord over” rather than gently “train” the gifts of creation.

2. Hiccup’s and Astrid’s beautiful relationship exalts marriage.

This series shows Hiccup and his girlfriend, Astrid, building their relationship so realistically and beautifully.

They’re different. But they’re committed to one another. They’re a great team. They joke around, with “banter” based not on sexual nonsense or stupid flippancy, but on shared commitment to one another and to their tribe. Hiccup supports Astrid. And Astrid, in a fashion that can only be described as the best kind of “complementarian” beauty, supports her beau (and by film 3, her chief).

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World Christian review

I love you guys.

I love how Valka, Hiccup’s mother, encourages their relationship. In one touching moment in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, she gently suggests Astrid intervene and support Hiccup’s leadership. Valka says that Hiccup can’t do this alone, though he feels he must because his father did.

Even Hiccup’s goofy friends, Ruffnut and Gobber, insist Hiccup and Astrid get married.

For the couple’s part, they aren’t sure they’re ready. (You could see this as a gentle prod at some younger people. They seem to act as if they “aren’t ready” to try marriage until they’ve earned enough money, or gotten enough education, or traveled enough of the world, or …)

Spoiler alert: They finally do marry.

In animated film-verses, I’d rank their covenant relationship at the second-highest, just beneath Carl and Ellie from Pixar’s Up.

3. Hiccup has heart-achingly refreshing family love with his parents.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World Christian review

I’m not crying you’re crying.

Double spoiler alert: Hiccup’s chieftain father, Stoick the Vast, sacrificed his life in film 2 to save Hiccup.

In film 3, Stoick makes a few flashback appearances that further the story. And his appearances triple down on the films’ insistence that Stoick was a good father. Stoick fought for his family, his tribe, and for honor. He committed to one woman, Valka, for life. He loves and respects his son, Hiccup, even while challenging him to grow as the tribe’s future chief.

Even in film 1, when Stoick insisted the only good dragon was a dead dragon, he was doing his best for his people. And when Stoick learned otherwise, thanks to his son, he fully committed to seeing dragons in a new and peaceful light.

Hiccup respects his mother, Valka, just as much. They both share “the soul of a dragon.” She respects him, even her younger son, as chief of the tribe. And (as already mentioned) she does whatever she can to encourage Hiccup and Astrid toward commitment and marriage.

Any other flippant animated franchise would have reversed all of this: cheap “daddy issues,” shallow conflict over long-lost parents, or patriarchy/matriarchy. We get none of that. Only images of the love, honor, and affection that all three members of a family can share together—and the challenges this brings when they face the evils in the world.2

4. Heroic humans can’t keep building a ‘dragon utopia’ … yet.

How to Train Your Dragon has specialized in showcasing thrilling environments where dragons soar colorfully and freely.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World tops them all. Here, Hiccup decides to migrate his people away from their original home. They’ve grown too numerous. He believes they must seek a mythical land from which all the dragons come: the hidden world. There, the Vikings can live together with their dragon friends in peace, away from a world of dragon trappers and hunters.

When our heroes finally reach this world, the film’s animators, plus John Powell’s soundtrack with chorale, take viewers into this wonder. This isn’t just a secret cave. It hangs with glowing jewels, and swims with tiny dragons like tadpoles made of glowing golden aether.

This is a perfect Garden of Eden, or even heaven on earth, for these wild creatures.

Later, Hiccup and Astrid realize the truth: they can’t stay here.

The film almost neglects to explain why. But I felt it didn’t need to put this into words. This place is too unspoilt, too beautiful, too pristine and even too spiritual. Even peaceful-warrior humans simply … don’t match. And if non-peaceful humans ever found this place, they would ruin this paradise just like Adam and Eve ruined the last one.3

Triple spoiler alert …

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World Christian review

That’s why, near the story’s end, we come to sweet partings. Hiccup bids goodbye to his dragon, Toothless. Other Vikings, following his lead, remove their equipment and wish farewell to their faithful beasts. And Toothless leads the dragons to the hidden world to live in peace.

Well, that’s about as Christian as I could hope for.

So is the fact that dragons will return someday. Hiccup, in the film’s closing monologue, says they’re waiting for humans to “get along.” That will do as a brief summary. But in the real world we know that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”4 Creation waits not just for people to behave better. Creation waits for us to be resurrected, so we can become peaceful, creative, God-worshiping, dragon-taming chiefs and chieftesses of the real hidden world—the New Heavens and New Earth.

Finally, we see Hiccup and his bride and their two children get one last glimpse of this hidden world. And I’m left yearning for New Earth even more. But with one great advantage: I know the Creator of all dragons, and I believe he’s promised to bring them back.

“The world believes the dragons are gone, if they ever existed at all. But we Berkians know otherwise. And we’ll guard the secret. Until the time comes, when the dragons can return—in peace.”

  1. See my article “‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Shows Man’s Good Stewardship,” EStephenBurnett.com, Feb. 25, 2019.
  2. Brief aside: Christian movie-makers, can you follow this lead set by How to Train Your Dragon‘s central Viking family, please? Your family characters can be interesting without some dramatic Conflict. That is, somebody flirting, somebody Not Being a Good Husband, somebody dying Tragically, somebody needing to Learn a Lesson About Faith. Ya basic. Plot twist: going back to some traditional heroic-character training actually frees your story to soar higher.
  3. I’m adding the “Adam and Eve” part. The film has no story of “original sin” or an origin for dragons. A Christian can see the film’s images as incidental portrayals of these biblical truths. But I make no claim that the director or other storytellers chose to work with these biblical themes. That’s why the films’ only shallow element is likely here: we get no imagined myth from the film to explain why dragons (who often behave as sentient as the humans) couldn’t also become corrupt. After all, we’ve already seen that at least one type of monster-dragon could turn into a bloated, dominating beast.
  4. Romans 8:19.
E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I think the reason why these films spoke so powerfully to me is precisely because of how they portray the differing shades of masculinity, and Hiccup’s relationship to his family. My dad is almost exactly like Stoic. When I was younger, there were times he frightened me, and I felt I could never be like him, never be as strong as him. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve come to understand his incredibly broken family past (his father basically abandoned him), and to appreciate how strong and goodhearted and wonderful a man he is. He really is a freaking amazing father. I also realize more than ever that I’m not like him. At the same time, growing to love and appreciate his strength has made me a stronger man, and in my own way, I’ve grown to be very much like him. It’s interesting how the same shifts can be seen in Hiccup’s life. He became more like his father in so many ways–yet in his own way, not in his father’s way, and that’s a good and beautiful thing. That make sense? Anyways, I think Stoic’s form of masculinity is absolutely beautiful. And I’m SO glad they didn’t just simply slam it, but showed the good and bad of it all together. Just like Hiccup’s masculinity is beautiful, and comes with its own set of good and bad. Absolutely one of my favorite animated series of all time.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I dunno, making Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship revolve around the question of marriage seems like missing the forest for the trees. That’s a thing that bad movies do, making relationship arcs all about wheeeeen are we getting maaaaariiiiiied, and ignoring the good stuff like mutual support or, like, actually enjoying each other’s company — which this series does really good.

I still don’t know why Astrid couldn’t be essentially acting chief in the 2nd movie — tho Hiccup does grow into the role more, he seems more suited to dragon-work than community-managing.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I think that’s part of the struggle every man encounters (that I’m certain you haven’t experienced because you’re not one): every man is given responsibility over things they’re less suited than others to accomplish. That’s part of the struggle of being a man. How do I fulfill my obvious responsibility when I feel so incapable in comparison with others? But one unique thing about men is that in general (this is anecdotal now, but strongly anecdotal, and I think most other men would affirm it), men need responsibility thrust on them, and that pressure is what allows them to rise to the occasion. Women seem to more often mature more quickly without that pressure on them. The responsibility given to men for their families, etc., I think, is because God knows many men need to be pushed into that role in order to rise to be what God made them to be. It’s not to push away women who are many times more capable. It has nothing to do with capacity. Everything to do with makeup and living with true vibrancy (both genders). In general, these seem to be films for little boys. The themes are more centered around masculinity. That’s why Astrid wouldn’t be chief–it’s just not the primary focus. My two cents…

Autumn Grayson
Guest

It’s sort of been a while since I’ve seen the shows, but I see Astrid fitting better as more of a military general of sorts, rather than the top leader of their entire culture. She probably could do that if need be, but once Hiccup fully grows into his role I think he’d be a pretty good leader. He’s the kind of person that goes out and innovates, finding things that will benefit his people and implementing them. In some ways, he’s really great at finding solutions where there seem to be none at first, and is willing to work through obstacles in order to find those solutions. That’s a really great trait for a leader to have. Plus, the fact that he’s the heir means he’s had at least some coaching from his father, as well as a slightly different perspective as he’s watched his father lead.

Speaking from experience, girls still need a LOT of responsibility in order to grow. I say this as an the eldest sibling in my family. I had a lot more responsibility from an early age, and my sister has had less, and it’s definitely been detrimental for her. She’s had some responsibility, of course, but not anything that people would call out of the ordinary.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

It’s still different for males, and I think most males would attest to it. I have a daughter, so I understand that females need responsibility as well. Not what I’m saying. I’m saying males need it forced on them to a greater degree.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Maybe. I haven’t studied them closely enough to know if I agree or not. An interesting thing that occurs to me while discussing this is how personality type might come into play as well. Stories like How To Train Your Dragon, where guys rise up to take responsibility, become leader(or at least more competent in some capacity or other) have always appealed to me way more than stories that are aimed more at girls. The guy chars in those stories just tended to be a lot more relatable, and they reflect a lot of what it’s like to grow up and learn how to deal with life.

But, thinking about it, there’s actually a pretty huge point where, aside from being the eldest and all that jazz, my personality type is very driven and likely to do things alone. So, both on accident and on purpose I end up in situations where I have to take responsibility and figure out how to succeed, and my Dad’s been the same way, even outside any responsibilities his parents placed on him.

But then there’s people like my sister or maybe even my ex boyfriend that probably need to be pushed a little more since they’re not exactly self starters. It’s not that they’re irresponsible, but they have a lot less drive and that affects how they behave. In my ex’s case, I don’t think it’s as detrimental, though. He takes care of his responsibilities, but he’s usually not as strategic and innovative and motivated as an INTJ like me or my dad.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Yea, I’d agree personality impacts these things quite heavily. But let’s take an example of self-starter men: they tend to massively shirk relational duties. They need that forced on them. I think partially because of men’s compartmentalized thinking, they tend to be more myopic and need accountability forced on them to a greater degree (on average). Too complex a topic for a comment section. 🙂 But if you think the idea is intriguing, maybe try looking for it in people around you and see if it holds water. No one has to agree with me.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Maybe. I should probably clarify that INTJs are kind of a rare personality type, so not every self starter is an INTJ. Speaking both from real life observations and the best examples of INTJs in fiction, though, they tend to be pretty decent in the realm of relational duties by the time they reach adulthood. They have their faults still, but they aren’t exactly more numerous than everyone else’s. People are just more apt to notice the INTJ’s faults because they are a little more unusual.

As far as compartmentalization, I’d really like to see more men talking about it and describing what that actually feels like in day to day examples and such. I’ve seen cursory explanations, but they don’t exactly show what it’s like to be inside someone’s head and experience that compartmentalization. Observation doesn’t seem to be enough to explain it either, since on the surface it looks like guys don’t behave much different than girls, at least from what I’ve seen.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

It’s hard to describe what it’s like when you’ve never experienced anything different and so you don’t know what all makes the experience unique. One example of a difference between a lot of men and a lot of women (though I’ve heard women who say they experience this, as well), is men’s “Nothing box.” Basically, all men I’ve ever talked to about this say that they spend significant time during each day thinking of nothing. It’s hard for me to imagine being incapable of thinking of nothing. But for me, it’s rest time, where I can let my emotions decompress. There are times I have to block out emotion, and thoughts, and just focus on doing something physical, etc., and get rejuvenated. Do you have a nothing box? https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I don’t think I have one. My ex says he has one. I don’t know if my dad does or not, but of course he’s busy all the time and maybe doesn’t have time to let his mind rest. I’ll have to ask him at some point.

My mind doesn’t ever shut up, but sometimes if I’m startled out of my thoughts and someone asks me what I was thinking about, I won’t remember what my thoughts were. Either that, or I can’t articulate them, so it’s easier to just say ‘nothing’. Sometimes I wonder if people are thinking about stuff all the time, they just kind of won’t be as aware of those thoughts and it will feel as if they weren’t thinking about anything.

My ex and I sort of had an interesting conversation about this a year or two ago. I said that the nothing box sounds like it would be hard to describe in writing, especially since it would be hard to be in a character’s head and describe large swathes of time where they aren’t thinking anything. He said ‘Oh, well, Stephen King indicated the nothing box just fine. All he does is say that the guy stared off into space or something.’

Usually, if I hear a character stared off into space, I assume that they just sort of tuned out and started daydreaming instead, because if I start ‘staring off into space’ I’m still thinking, but only about something that’s more interesting than what’s going on at that present moment.

I don’t know how many girls feel the same. At the very least I would assume some of them would develop a nothing box as a result of stress, personality type, etc.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

That’s really interesting that you both interpreted that two totally different ways. What about, “His mind became a wasteland of nothing.” ?? Does that speak that to you? Because for me, the nothing box isn’t just me not remembering what I was thinking about. It’s me literally thinking nothing.

Regardless of personality type, all men I’ve ever talked to have a nothing box, and can voluntarily think of nothing on command. It’s something that seems to be written into our DNA. Though I’m sure there’s probably some exception to the rule somewhere.

For me, the busier I am, the more time I need in the nothing box. It’s like a let-off valve for anxiety. So I’d be curious what your dad would say.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I’m not sure. That would probably depend on the context. Thinking about it now, one other thing that might help is if the author only reported the characters actions, instead of thoughts. The effectiveness of that would probably depend on the writing style, though. My writing style mostly depends on feeling like the audience is in the character’s head, watching them analyze and react to their surroundings.

So if I said a guy char ‘stared off into space’ and started only reporting his actions, then that might illustrate it for those that know the nothing box exists, because the char wouldn’t be analyzing anything anymore. But people that don’t know about the nothing box probably wouldn’t notice. Still, a scene like that could probably be a good example people could use if they needed an actual example to point out.

One thing I’ve learned while looking into personality type stuff is that most people have the same set of cognitive functions, but each personality type has a certain combination of traits that are ‘primary’ or the ‘default’. One INTJ primary/default is to be Responding, instead of Initiating. Basically, INTJs are introverted, not extroverted. They can be talkative, but they are a lot less likely to start conversations, friendships, etc. They CAN initiate those things, but it takes a lot more effort on their part.

Using that concept on the nothing box… Maybe the nothing box is a default/primary trait for men, and women usually only utilize the nothing box in themselves after dealing with extreme amounts of stress or something. I dunno. That’s my theory on why some women might report having a nothing box.

notleia
Guest
notleia

I don’t know if previous generations have had the same feelings about “adulting” as millennials have, but I had virtually no real independence while at home, and it hamstrung me pretty heavily when I got to college.

I also had/have the kind of parents who value efficiency, which means letting their kids practice skills wasn’t high on their list of priorities. Coincidentally, this is part of why I had/have issues with perfectionism and fear of failure.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

That’s pretty interesting. I heard someone on the Christian radio station in our area talking about this recently, too. Her message for parents that felt like yours is that it won’t always be less efficient to give their kids responsibility. If the kids are given age appropriate chores, then they will learn them pretty quickly, and then be able to do those chores on a regular basis (therefore saving parents time in the long run.)

My parents actually valued independence very highly, so even if they weren’t obsessive with giving out chores, etc. they had a lot of things they expected us to be responsible with. There was an interesting balance between them being there for us and also expecting us to learn how to do things competently. If we were dragging our feet and not learning and progressing, they were a little more likely to get onto us, especially if they could tell we weren’t doing our best. My mom used to be really particular about my grades, for instance.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Notleia, I had a real similar experience, growing up, and then going to college. My parents were the same way, and I had the same fallout. Now that I’m a parent, I’m finding it frustratingly difficult to be patient while my daughter learns to do things. But it’s also extremely rewarding seeing her learn to do things. I see now why it was hard for my parents, and am trying hard to NOT repeat the same mistakes (with varying degrees of success).

notleia
Guest
notleia

Or to frame it a different way, why are men allowed to be unmotivated blobs who are waiting for a gift-wrapped opportunity to be handed to them? What happens when the universe doesn’t plop one in their laps? (Spoilers, there’s a nonzero chance that it involves a mass shooting.)

So I’m not convinced that your paradigm is actually a healthy or a correct one.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I’m not sure exactly where me or Brennan said men should be ‘allowed’ to be unmotivated blobs. Can you clarify what you mean by your last sentence?

notleia
Guest
notleia

No, it’s not you guys specifically, but you both seem to be accepting the cultural narrative without questioning it. I think that a lot of this is not just “how men are,” but “how our culture influences men to behave.”

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Oh. Well, I don’t think I actually accept the cultural narrative, really, I just don’t really have enough information to know whether I agree or not. Honestly, though, it kind of doesn’t matter. If someone actually is more predisposed to being an unmotivated blob, that kind of means they need to work harder at fixing that. I actually feel sort of impatient if I do see people that are unmotivated enough to cause problems. Trust me, regardless if I had a son or a daughter, I’d do everything I could to make the kid competent, responsible, hard working, etc.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I just shared my opinion. Not a cultural narrative.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Haven’t seen this movie yet, but I’d like to soon. It is interesting to hear that they actually do get married. A lot of stories now days have romantic arcs simply end with the two chars falling in love, or deciding to date. None of those options are immediately bad for a story, but authors should choose what makes sense for the story and characters.

I really don’t mind stories with high parental conflict when it makes sense. Lots of people deal with that in real life, so it can be good to have stories that show people how/why things happen and the potential effects. One annoying thing about a lot of stories now, though, is that they make it a bit one note in a lot of cases. It’s usually all about parents being super wrong, and then everything’s alright as soon as the parent is out of the picture or ‘sees the light’.

Even if the parent was wrong, that doesn’t always mean the kid does everything right in response. My current WIP is sort of like that, actually. It was understandable for the main char to leave his mother as soon as he could, but then he got married too soon, which caused a lot of problems for him. And then there ended up being a messy mix of things later, because even though his mother was a jerk, she was still kind of right sometimes and he might have been better off if he listened to her a bit more.