Review: How to train your dragon

Animated fantasy actioner for children and howtotraindragonposteryoung teens, about Hiccup who gets an unexpected friend and plays an unusual role in the Viking village.

The Viking movie genre is so full of fantasy that it is not a surprise that Dreamworks decided to make a Viking film with dragons. Of course, dragons are already connected to the Vikings through their own beliefs, their longboat dragon bows and their folktales, and coupled with the popularity of dragons in current fantasy litterature, How to train your dragon seems to arrive at the right moment in time.

In the film, Hiccup, a 12-ish year old son of the Viking village chief, is reluctant to learn to kill dragons, which are a natural part of the Vikings’ life. From small, almost cute dragons to big town-crushing ones. Hiccup wants to be a blacksmith, and he’s even skinnier than the girls, so his father’s hope for Hiccup to become a real Viking does not really happen. One day, Hiccup accidentally encounters a dragon who hides in the woods, as it cannot fly. Hiccup learns that the dragon is not evil, and builds a mechanism that allows the dragon to fly again.

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From the very beginning, the movie is filled with action scenes of various kinds. And it never stops – this is one of the most action filled children’s movies I have seen! There is never a boring moment, but the focus on rollercoaster dragon rides also means that both character development and the story itself suffers. Case in point; there are only about four or five characters of importance in the film, and that includes the dragon. And contrary to what you think, Hiccup is not one of the characters that sees a nice character arch; his father the Viking lord and the main female character, a girl of Hiccup’s age, are more interesting. Hiccup is pretty much the same boy throughout the film, which may or may not mean that he was a really good guy with high standards and didn’t need any character development. But it does make him less interesting. Hiccup is a bit goody two shoes for my taste. Nevertheless, the focus on action and lack of serious writing is probably intentional in this case. It’s a movie for the tween generatoin, and layering too much is probably something the writers and directors tried to avoid. Still, I whish they could have crafted the characters in a smarter way, and shown us why we should care about all the Vikings in the film being attacked by dragons, and not just the sweet Hiccup. Additionally, the film is very much a “reluctant heir refuse to follow in dad’s footsteps” type film, which we have seen so many times before (and not only in Viking films).

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On the other, and I might be underestimating the audience here, it’s the action that counts, and since there is plenty of it, and nicely done too, children of all ages will be entertained. Dragons and Vikings, what is there not to love? And those beards! On the always important Beardometer, this Viking movie is hard to beat! If you can overlook the many historical anachronisms (not a problem in children’s fantasy films) all you need to do is fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!

Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois.

Rated 8 of 10.

USA, 2010.

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Review: Dragon Wars

Produced for National Geographic,Dragon Wars Fire and Fury Dragon Wars – Fire and Fury is an infotainment documentary about mythological dragons and their possible links to actual history, including the Vikings.

The Vikings did not only believe in Thor and Odin and forest trolls, they also believed in dragons, the fire-breating giant lizzard that was “known” to most of the world even in ancient times. Dragon Wars – Fire and Fury focuses on dragon myths in Medieval Europe, with more than half the movie looking at the Vikings’ relations to dragons.

The 47 minute documentary is split into four chapters, with the first one talking about the monks of Lindisfarne in Northern England, who in the year 793 were attacked by heathen invaders; Vikings. The documentary argues that the monks did believe in dragons, as did their fellow Anglosaxons, who recorded this passage about the Viking attack in 793:

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.

The real-life dragons the monks faced were perhaps Vikings, with their strange clothes, big sails and dragon-decorated longboats?

The documentary then claims that the legend of Beowulf, as described in the famous poem, may have roots in reality, as opposed to being just a work of fiction and imagination. The dragon in the poem is supposed to symbolize the protection of barrows (burial mounds), and when looters steal from a tomb protected by the dragon, it seeks revenge, something Beowulf must stop. Grave plundering was taboo, hence warnings in the form of dragon legends. Reality may have kicked in, says the documentary, when archeologists found a ship and weapons at Sutton Hoo; remnants of a warrior king from the same era that Beowulf supposedly lived. The find included a helmet with a golden dragon as decoration.

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The second chapter shows us how the Vikings themselves were haunted by dragons. Not only did they believe that a giant serpent surrounded the entire world, but they also used dragons in a more solid way, as symbolic decorations extended from the bow or stern. The big Viking dragon in the legends even had a name; Fafnir, a former human turned dragon who was killed by Sigurd, a famous character in Viking mythology. Not only is the myth of Sigurd explained in this documentary; his work is actually depicted in runestones, and was also the subject of a Norwegian Viking film for children, The littlest Viking.

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The third chapter introduces us to a Norman (a French Viking) knight, sir John Conyers, who supposedly slayed a dragon or “worm” that terrorised the district. Conyers was a historical person, and his sword us today used in Christian ceremonies. He never did kill a dragon of course, but could have used dragon legends to reinforce his political position. He is also seen as a symbol for Christianity taking a definitive stand against the Vikings, whose victims were no longer monks with books, but monks with swords!

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The final 20 minutes of the documentary – which has nice CG animation, considering it is not a 100 million dollar feature – deals with non-Viking Medieval myths, with the same type of documentation; old manuscripts, archeological objects and folk legends.

Dragon Wars – Fire and Fury is not the most scientifically accurate documentary you will ever see. I can’t put my finger on any specific errors in it (a historian might), but the overall feeling is that it combines “evidence” in creative ways and stretches imagination more than serious documentaries should. By no means does it suggest that dragons ever existed, but it does suggest that some of the finds and old texts prove that both monks and Vikings literally referred to dragons in their drawings, carvings and transcripts. That is historical extrapolation without the possibility of fiction or allegory being part of the picture. There’s no room for alternative theories, such as the Sutton Hoo helmet having a bird depicted, rather than a dragon. The bird theory is an option defended by the British Museum, but that would ruin the premise of this film, so it is not mentioned.

As it stands, Dragon Wars is more infotainment than history, and could perhaps establish some people’s interest in history and entice them to look deeper into the subjects covered. But again, for that angle to be taken seriously, the documentary could have had a less stronger belief in the mythology it presents.

Rated 6 of 10.

USA, 2012.