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.
In 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).
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.
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 …
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.”
- See my article “‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Shows Man’s Good Stewardship,” EStephenBurnett.com, Feb. 25, 2019. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Romans 8:19. ↩