How to Train Your Dragon, released in 2008 and directed by Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders became an instant classic along side Toy Story and Cars. I loved watching this movie—the soundtrack was so moving, the characters so hilarious, and the dragons so epic. This movie, in my opinion, has one of the best beginnings of any movie on screen. I will be going over the entire first thirty minutes of How to Train Your Dragon, so spoiler alert! To understand what this movie got fundamentally right about its beginning, we must ask the question, “What is the perfect beginning?”
A perfect beginning accomplishes three things as soon as possible so that the plot can start moving more rapidly: introducing the context of the story, introducing the heroes of the story, and introducing the conflict of the story. Every story requires these three ingredients in order to have a good ending. Without the context, there is no scale to judge the characters and environment. Without the heroes, there is no scale to judge the importance of the story goal. Without the conflict, a story cannot develop the heroes or the plot. So, I assert that How to Train Your Dragon meets the criteria of having a perfect beginning, but how does it do that?
How to Train Your Dragon starts off with an aerial view from the wave tops of Berk, the hometown of the Vikings, as if the audience is seeing it from a dragon’s eyes. Hiccup, the son of the chief, begins narrating with the now famous line, “This is Berk.” Within five seconds, the audience knows exactly where they are as Hiccup elaborates on where Berk is: “Just North of Misery and South of Unbearable. It snows nine months of the year and rains the other three.” By using this obvious hyperbole, it adds humor and context simultaneously in exquisite detail. Hiccup’s narration continues without change in pace, panning around the village until the camera settles on sheep grazing on a pasture, then Hiccup starts to talk about the pests—the Dragons. Narration rarely works as it tells the audience the circumstances rather than showing them in a memorable way, yet the hyperbole and the wonderful acting by Jay Baruchel, Hiccup’s actor, made the narration a masterpiece. It finished the first part of a good beginning by introducing the context.
Hiccup’s narration ends as Gobber, Hiccup’s mentor and rather large friend, tells Hiccup explicitly not to leave the armory while he goes out. Here, phase two begins as the movie introduces Hiccup’s motivations to the audience. His decision to go out and fight the dragons is the first of three life changing decisions he makes by the end of the first act. By giving Hiccup these decisions, Deblois characterizes Hiccup as an active character who shapes the plot rather than being shaped by the plot. Hiccup desires to become a part of his community—his primary conflict during the movie. After shooting down the great Nightfury dragon, he gets a second opportunity to make an important choice. He gets shepherded to his house, but as Gobber leaves, he runs off out the backdoor to look for the downed Nightfury. He finds the Nightfury helpless on the ground. This forms the climax of the first act where Hiccup’s goal of becoming a part of the clan clashes with the revulsion of killing something. As one of my favorite scenes from the movie, this one scene combines all three essential parts of story into one and puts them into conflict.
Wait, isn’t the climax of the first act where Hiccup “tames” the Nightfury that he downed? That scene, however, is the natural progression of this conflict. Here the plot could go two ways, but there, the plot has already been determined by Hiccup’s actions. How does Deblois craft all three parts of a perfect story into one scene? First, the context has been set up in order to create as much tension as possible during this scene. Vikings had always killed dragons, and now Hiccup had the chance to remove one of the most dangerous dragons ever born, which would make him a part of his community. However, Hiccup’s character conflicts against the context. Hiccup has already been set apart as different to the rest of the tribe. He looks and acts different from everyone else, making him feel like an outcast. Then, while physically able to kill the dragon when Toothless, the Nightfury, opens his eyes, Hiccup, rather than killing the beast, ponders the ethics of killing a helpless dragon. The result is a heavily conflicted scene which raptures the audience. Once Hiccup realizes that he has committed wrong by downing Toothless, he starts to cut the ropes which bound the dragon. Once he has cut enough ropes, Toothless bounds on top of Hiccup, turning the tables. Here, Hiccup receives his vindication as Toothless lets him live, proving that Hiccup has done the right thing.
Why does the perfect beginning matter? Scientific experiments have found that the modern population has been losing their attention span which has had direct effects on media and storytelling. Audiences nowadays need to know why they should watch a movie or even read a book with an equally intriguing beginning rather than look at social media or indulge in some other distraction. Also, the perfect beginning gives the story momentum in order to keep the plot rolling and the movie generally active. As 2019 comes to a close, we should start 2020 as best as we possibly can in order to do as well as possible this year. Let’s move the plots and conflicts of our lives forward like Hiccup, and while we won’t have an epic soundtrack backing us up, at least we have our families to support us.