While our culture debates whether marriage is obsolete, movies that glorify traditional love and the nuclear family keep drawing audiences and critical acclaim. DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is the latest, and it has a dumbfoundingly old-fashioned message: grow up, release your dragon, get married, and have children.
In the process, it offers a profound commentary on the nature of friendship, family, and storytelling, even for those of us whose best bud isn’t a night fury.
(Major spoilers ahead.)
“Hidden World” caps off a trilogy of animated films that began in 2010, and are loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s series of novels by the same name. It continues the story of a forbidden friendship between Hiccup, the scrawny son of a Viking chieftain, and Toothless, the last of a legendary dragon species. Their unlikely bond reverses centuries of warfare between dragons and Vikings, but invites a host of baddies looking to exploit the firepower of these mythic beasts.
In “Hidden World,” Hiccup and Toothless have become leaders to their respective races, but find themselves facing ever more menacing foes, all bent on either dominating or destroying dragons. At last the pair realize that the only road to peace leads away from their ancestral home, into uncharted waters.
The latest villain, Grimmel, doesn’t intend to make the voyage easy for them. He wants all dragons either drugged into servitude or mounted on his wall, and he takes delight in the hunt. Complicating matters even further, love is in the air.
A Competition Between Bros and Brides
Audiences already know Hiccup’s romantic interest, Astrid, a sharp-witted shield maiden who has been around since the first movie (although she hasn’t quite committed to tying the knot). We get hints that her hesitation has something to do with Hiccup’s dependence on and devotion to his dragon. He’s not quite husband material yet, and she knows it.
That devotion between Viking and dragon is tested when Toothless gets his turn to fall head-over-haunches for a rare female of his species, called a “light fury.” But the friends soon discover that there’s more to this dazzling femme reptile than meets the eye. She’s being used as bait to capture Toothless, and as long as he and the other dragons remain with Hiccup’s people, their peril will only grow.
Thus, the movie brings our heroes to a crossroads: Hiccup and the other Vikings must choose between keeping their dragons and releasing them into a vast and secret refuge, far from human reach. Hiccup must decide whether he loves Toothless enough to set him free—not only to a place he can find safety, but where he and his mate can start a family of their own.
In the climactic battle with the bad guy, Hiccup chooses to put his friend ahead of himself, and having escaped with his life, shares what he thinks is a last goodbye with Toothless. The victorious chieftain and Astrid are (not coincidentally) married shortly thereafter.
As the years pass, Hiccup regales his children with stories about when dragons soared the skies with Vikings on their backs. But one day, as he sails his wife and kids into an uncharted cove, he spots a familiar nest of night-and-light furies. The wild-looking male pounces on the Vikings’ ship, apparently intent on eating them.
Instead, a joyous reunion of families ensues, with introductions all around and plenty of warm fuzzies (or should I say cold scalies?). Hiccup and Toothless find that even though they have grown and built lives of their own, their friendship remains as strong as ever—and that their families can now share in it.
Endings Are Everything
It’s a conclusion my kids loved, and a saga finale deserving every bit of the critical acclaim it’s receiving. That’s to say nothing of the jaw-dropping animation and score by John Powell. But this family fantasy also reminded me of a very real-world point about friendship: It’s a type of love that doesn’t die after stepping aside. Instead, mundane mystery that it is, friendship becomes fulfilled and glorified when it makes way for life.
When my wife and I married eight years ago, I asked four of my closest friends to be my groomsmen (in addition to my brother and brother-in-law). I have since seen only one of those friends on anything like a regular basis. The rest have gone their own ways as I have gone mine, all marrying and having children. Our fellowship has broken. We mostly see each other now on social media, exchanging brief messages.
For some people, this is cause for sadness. I don’t feel that way. This natural yielding by friendship to family is something most men and women who marry will experience. Our shift in priorities is an inevitable and healthy part of growing up. We are right to focus on our spouses and little ones. It’s their turn to embark on the adventure of life, to make friends of their own, and to write their own stories. We would be selfish to hold them back just so that we can cling to our chapters, perpetually reliving yesteryear.
There’s an analogy here for Hollywood, obsessed as it has become with endlessly dragged-out sagas and nostalgic sequels. Stretching a series out beyond its time is not only an act of creative betrayal, continually undermining the stakes and triumphs of each episode. It defies the very nature of a story, which is to come to an end. The “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy boldly bucks this trend, bringing its heroes to maturity and then giving audiences an unapologetic “the end.” That’s part of what makes it so good.
Closing the book on both friendships and stories points us beyond this changing life, to something much more permanent. This is the truth that quietly passes between parting friends in a glance or a nod. I think of Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound” as Todd and Copper go their separate ways, of Frodo and Sam as they bid farewell in the Grey Havens, of Alfred and Bruce’s wordless exchange at the café in Florence at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
True friends know that they can afford to wait, to give each other the time and freedom to grow into the men or women they were meant to be, and especially to raise the next generation. Friendship has no timetable or biological clock. If you are religious, those occasional and wonderful reunions foreshadow a time when there will be no more goodbyes, no more obligations or parting-of-ways, no more “the ends,” and no more breaking of fellowships.