Dragons have long been a symbol for the fear of the unknown. Using the phrase "Here be dragons" map makers of the 16th century would denote the edge of their knowledge and warn that from there unknown dangers may be found. Taking this symbolic language literally, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders join forces once more to create an animated tale of dragons and a Viking village's fear of them.
Based on a story by Cressida Cowell, the central character is a small Viking named Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is unlike the others of his village not only in size but in imagination. Compensating for his inability to physically fight the dragons that plaque his village, Hiccup creates a cannon that fires a rope that entangles the wings and feet of a dragon. Thinking that if he can kill a dragon he will be accepted by his father Stoick (voice by Gerard Butler) and loved by the beautiful Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup is overjoyed when his weapon works.
But when Hiccup comes upon the infamous Night Fury helpless within his ropes, he intuitively realizes that this fearsome creature is fearful and thus begins a journey in mutual understanding.
The lessons of the film are obvious and designed for children, though the film is too scary for younger ones. But the themes are for all ages: Facing our fears and overcoming their power; being ourselves and not doing violence because our father and village believe it to be necessary; making a good life in the most destitute of circumstances; and the most important message is that those who harm us are often running from some greater fear in their own lives. We won't spoil the film to explain how that is true, but it is a clear reminder that even dragon-like people may be trying to pacify the monsters in their own lives.
The combining of Viking lore with Scottish determination and a teenager's coming of age who changes the world, are the primal feelings and fears that "How to Train Your Dragon" explores. It is entertaining and effective in that task.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The desire to fit in with our peers can perpetuate misunderstandings and vengeful actions. In thinking of your own life, have you joined in any violence or harmful behavior in order to belong?
2. The love which Hiccup's father has for him is struggling to find expression because the two are so different. Have you found it difficult to experience and express love toward one or both of your parents? How are you resolving this?
3. All of us experience fear of the unknown. How have you "trained your fears" in order to face them and use their power for good?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.