UP, UP, AND FAR, FAR AWAY
‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Is the New ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy: The Unlikely Story Behind the Beloved Franchise
From ‘Empire Strikes Back’ homages to ‘Jedi’ cautionary lessons and a timeless coming-of-age tale, director Dean DeBlois takes us inside the animated trilogy’s secrets to success.
There’s nothing lamer than a dragon that loses its fire. So Dean DeBlois knew the heat was on when it came to wrapping up the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy with this weekend’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Making sure that Toothless, the legendary dragon who needs a little help in order to fly, and Hiccup, the Viking runt who tamed him, didn’t come in for a crash-landing was one thing. But DeBlois, who wrote and directed the final two installments after co-writing and co-directing (and, by many accounts, co-rescuing) the first How to Train Your Dragon, did one better than ensuring that Toothless’s swansong was more than a disappointing puff of smoke: He made a finale that will make you cry.
It’s not the goal you might expect when you think about a franchise in which dragons war, Vikings battle, and entire worlds cross in huge action set pieces. “But if you can make an audience cry in the end, then that’s a great success,” DeBlois tells me after a frank conversation about the difficulties of finishing a trilogy on a strong note.
The response could arguably have also been inspired by this reporter frequently being on the verge of tears while pummeling him with questions about his franchise last week at a Manhattan coffee shop. We cannot confirm or deny.
How to Train Your Dragon premiered in 2010, the story of an odd young boy (Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup) in a mythical Viking village whose father, a heroic chieftan (Gerald Butler’s Stoick the Vast), can’t disguise his disappointment that his gangly son will never be the kind of dragon-slayer that he was. Desperate for his father’s approval, Hiccup uses his talent for building mechanical devices to shoot down the most dangerous dragon of all, the Night Fury. When he searches for his bounty, he ends up striking a kinship with the dragon, whom he names Toothless.
He fashions a new tail wing for the injured beast, and together they fly, helping their village overcome prejudice and mending the bond between Hiccup and his father. In 2014’s sequel they discover Hiccup’s long-lost mother, free other trapped dragons, and emerge as the respective leaders of the Vikings and dragons.
Now, in The Hidden World, it’s time for the friends to say goodbye. It’s time for us to say goodbye.
Our current emotional fragility surrounding it all is not helped by the fact that DeBlois, a burly man with a robust beard betraying an incredibly sweet disposition, bears a remarkable resemblance to the animated Stoick as we wax enthusiastic about his fictional son’s fate.
“For me, spectacle is relatively easy, and in a trilogy like this you’d hope that you’d been there several times,” DeBlois says. That spectacle is consciously scaled down in The Hidden World, which focuses on the core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless as they gain the wisdom that it’s time to let go, no matter how difficult that may be.
“That’s a universal crossroads that everybody has to deal with in their lives,” he says. “If we could hit it in such a way that surprised people and brought them emotionally with us so that they’re crying along with our main characters as they say goodbye, then that’s a success.”
Major calling cards for DeBlois are movies like The Fox and the Hound, Born Free, and E.T., in which disparate characters come together for a time and have such a profound effect on each other that, even if they part ways, they’ll never be the same again. (It’s no coincidence that these movies also tend to make anyone who watches dissolve into a puddle of tears.)
Once the first How to Train Your Dragon was a hit and he knew there were going to be sequels, DeBlois insisted that it be a trilogy with a finite conclusion, as The Hidden World has.
To get himself there, he had a plan: First, be Stars Wars. And then, well, don’t.
Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders joined DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon project in 2008. The studio had successes with Chicken Run, the Shrek films, and Madagascar, but was still routinely pitted in direct competition with Pixar's celebrated output. How to Train Your Dragon, based on the 2003 book of the same name by Cressida Cowell, was to be their next big play: with dragons flying through the sky, an opportunity to show off the latest in animation technology, but a story with a lot of heart.
DeBlois and Sanders, who had worked together on Lilo & Stitch, were brought in as replacement writers and directors to right a lost ship. Too much time had been wasted trying to do a faithful adaptation of the book, and the pair were encouraged to depart from the source material and inject it with bigger fantasy tropes. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought on as a visual consultant, and the team sprinted to a deadline, with only 14 months before the film had to be in theaters.
How to Train Your Dragon was not only a box-office smash, but a critical darling, with praise for a dramatic depth as dazzling as the action effects. A spinoff TV series and video game were developed. There was even an arena show, featuring 24 animatronic dragons, that launched in Australia.
Of course, talks about a sequel began immediately.
DeBlois agreed to take the helm if the studio would commit to a trilogy, a three-act story that would follow Hiccup from nuisance of the Viking tribe to wise, selfless leader—and in the process, say goodbye to the dragons.
It’s fitting that he broke the story for How to Train Your Dragon 2 at Skywalker Ranch. The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the original Star Wars trilogy, provided a crucial roadmap for expanding the emotional and dramatic scope. “I was inspired by a lot of the world-building and action set pieces and character surprises of Empire Strikes Back,” he says.
Once again, the film was a critical and commercial triumph. When we ask if he continued to take lessons from the Star Wars franchise when developing the third installment, he laughs. “Well, I was disappointed in The Return of the Jedi, so the only thing I kept in mind was that I didn’t want to crap the bed.”
He was also aware that Star Wars is far from the only trilogy with a third act that doesn’t live up to the first two entries. (Cough: The Godfather.) “But the idea of making a trilogy was born out of my love of those movies as a kid,” he says. “This felt like an opportunity to do that, a classic trilogy: one story, three acts, independent narratives that are linked by a person coming of age.”
Therein lies perhaps the most prudent similarity to the Star Wars films: the intense connection to a protagonist discovering himself and his full potential as he grapples with the universal struggles of coming of age—albeit in heightened circumstances as a budding Jedi in a galaxy far, far away. Or on the back of a dragon.
“Our medium almost immediately gets dismissed as something ‘for kids’ out of the gate,” DeBlois says, perhaps sensing your raised eyebrow at all the times his interviewer was going to bring up Star Wars in an article about How to Train Your Dragon. But outside of the franchise’s technical and special effects triumphs, it’s a testament to the need for a sophisticated story as the tether between each dragon race through the sky or lightsaber battle.
Born in Ontario and raised in Quebec, DeBlois now lives in Los Angeles with his husband and three French bulldogs. No, they’re not named after characters from his films. In fact, save for a sculpture of Toothless in his husband’s game room, you won’t find much dragon paraphernalia or mementos around his house.
Joking about how he presents his sexuality, DeBlois once told a story to The Advocate about how, when working on Lilo and Stitch with Sanders, people knew one of the pair was gay and always assumed it was Sanders: “He was all worked-out and fashionably dressed, and I hobbled in there looking like a redneck.”
This is all to say that, yes, he intensely identifies with Hiccup.
“I can definitely identify with perceiving myself as a disappointment and leading a secret life, being caught ‘out’ at one point,” he says.
Jay Baruchel, who voices Hiccup, has relayed to DeBlois that he relates to the same themes as a straight man, “being in his bedroom reading comics when everyone else was playing sports, feeling like an odd bird and somebody who didn’t fit into his world.”
The desire to assimilate but being ill-equipped to simply blend into the world like everyone else is a winning character combination for several of the characters he’s worked on, including in Mulan and Lilo and Stitch, and now with Hiccup.
“There’s something subliminal that speaks to a large portion of the audience who has felt that way,” he says. “So you’re rooting for him to realize that he doesn’t have to change who he is. To own that thing that he sees as a weakness and watch the world change around him. It would be his greatest strength.”
The dramatic and emotional climax of The Hidden World finds Hiccup and Toothless battling through ideas of acceptance, home, family, fear, and safety. What is truly a selfless act? What does it mean to act in the best interest of those we love?
At one point, your heart will contort into knots as the best friends work through these tough questions. “Our world doesn’t deserve you,” Hiccup tells Toothless. But then, the hope that we all need to remember, and what’s always made this franchise soar: “Yet.”