The How to Train Your Dragon movies are far and away the best work DreamWorks Animation have ever produced. For one thing, they’re simply gorgeous to look at, bursting with vibrantly designed creatures and characters, framed by the expert hand of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. They’re also compelling stories about tolerance and co-operation, centred around the fascinating, evolving relationship between a boy and his dragon, and they consistently hit emotional beats to rival even the mighty Pixar. But what makes the series especially fascinating, even quietly revolutionary, is its approach to depicting disability.
Both the series’ main protagonists – Hiccup the Viking and Toothless the Night Fury – are amputees. When Toothless is shot down by Hiccup in the opening of How to Train Your Dragon, he loses part of his tail fin and the ability to fly. In the course of learning about dragon behaviour, Hiccup uses his ingenuity to craft a prosthetic tail for Toothless that allows them to fly together. In the film’s climax, they work together to defeat a monstrous dragon – but in the process, Hiccup is gravely injured.
The quiet scene of the aftermath is one of the most powerful in the film. Hiccup awakes in his bed with Toothless by his side. He moves to get up, stops, and looks down with a look of shock that soon becomes one of resignation. The camera settles on the floor as he lowers first his right leg, then the wooden prosthetic that now replaces his left. After a few fumbling steps, leaning on Toothless for support, boy and dragon step into the light of a new future together. It’s a short scene, poignant but not melodramatic, and it’s one that will go on to inform the development of both protagonists in the rest of the series. Their prosthetics are a part of them, but not the defining part of them.
By the time of How to Train Your Dragon 2, set five years after the original, Hiccup has flourished as an inventor. He’s crafted a full suit of armour, complete with retractable wings for gliding, while his prosthetic has become more streamlined, looking more like the blades used by some athletes at the Paralympics. But apart from a few throwaway lines, the fact of Hiccup’s disability is barely mentioned. Instead, writer-director Dean DeBlois uses it as an opportunity to deepen Hiccup as a character, by showing us the myriad ways in which he works around it.
In fact, Hiccup isn’t the only character living and thriving with the aid of prostheses. Gobber the blacksmith, a wonderful supporting character voiced by comedian Craig Ferguson, has a wooden hand which he swaps out with all sorts of detachable extensions, from a hammer to a beer mug. It makes for some good visual gags, but it’s also never used as a way of punching down at Gobber; he’s consistently shown to be competent and brave, even if he is going into battle with an egg-beater for a hand. Gobber is also canonically gay – another piece of subtle inclusivity other kids’ films could learn from.
It’s hard to think of another character in an animated movie with a similar disability that doesn’t impact them or alter our perception of them. In Finding Nemo, Marlin’s panicking over his son stems directly from the fact that Nemo was born with a deformed fin. In Treasure Planet, the cyborg Long John Silver has a frankly awesome robot arm, but his augmentations are almost immediately coded as a reason to fear him and foreshadow his eventual treachery.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 features an antagonist, Draco Bludvist, who serves as a kind of dark mirror of Hiccup’s experience. At one point, Draco reveals that he lost an arm (presumably at the hands of a dragon), and it’s implied that this gave him the impetus to begin his plan to dominate all of dragon-kind. But it’s Hiccup and Toothless, who have learnt not to be defined by their impairments, who win the day.
In recent years there have been a slew of kids’ movies that have been unafraid to tackle heavy social issues, from Zootropolis’ nuanced examination of racial prejudice, to films like Coco and Moana actively seeking to inject some diversity into the world of animation. But sometimes, you can say a lot by saying very little. The How to Train Your Dragon films are not about disability, but their handling of it and its impact on the characters speaks volumes. Let’s hope that more kids’ films follow their example.