Hiccup is a Viking boy in a village terrorized by dragons. His father is the village’s greatest dragon slayer, but he is weak and seemingly inept, and secretly interested in inventing. In an attempt to prove himself , he shoots down the most feared and mysterious of the dragons with a ballista he built himself, but no one believes him. He tracks down the wounded creature to take a trophy for proof, but cannot bring himself to kill it. Instead, he takes care of it and studies it, while working on an invention to help it fly again. Meanwhile, his father arranges for him to be put through dragonslayer’s school. While he learns the secrets of the dragon from a dragon, his teacher prepares him to kill his first dragon as his final test. He must choose whether to fulfill the rite of passage or openly challenge what his community believes about dragons.
This film owes no allegiance to a tale or tradition (indeed, the assumed Norse setting is a something of a dislocation, as familiar dragon lore dragon lore comes mainly from England and Germany), but works effectively within the broader archetypes of the rite of passage and a “monster” misunderstood. The storytellers’ approach is revisionist without being irreverent, so that the dragons and their hunters are consistently capable and dignified. The central dragon, “Toothless”, is a panther-like creature, which presents a complex character without being anthropomorphic. (The animators’ detailed design even offers a bare minimum of aerodynamic sense.) The story effectively utilizes authentic elements of Medieval and Renaissance society, particularly Hiccup’s Da Vinci-like sketches of a dragon in flight. It also minimizes the borderline-inappropriate humor of “Shrek” and other more recent kids’ films, with the most “edgy” gags rising from Toothless’s insistence on sharing his food. The central “message”, well-played without being heavy-handed, is the value of respect for all living things, and of being willing to question custom and conventional wisdom.
David N. Brown