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"Everything we know about you guys is wrong."—Hiccup, commenting on Viking knowledge of dragons.
I admit the early advertising for How to Train Your Dragon (HTYD) did not have me waiting to buy a ticket on opening day, but the reviews and the buzz were both very good. HTYD is the latest from Dreamworks and the directors of Lilo and Stitch, a 2002 animated film I enjoyed. In the end, I agree HTYD is a very good movie, and there are a number of topics elementary and middle school teachers can use in their classes as the school year comes to a close.
HTYD is loosely based on a novel by Cressida Cowell, and tells the story of a young Viking by the name of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). Hiccup doesn't fit the normal Viking mold: he is small and scrawny rather than tall and muscular. As the son of Stoik (Gerard Butler), the leader of the Viking village, Hiccup is a particular disappointment, and has been put to work as the blacksmith's assistant. The Vikings fight constantly with a wide variety of dragons bent on stealing sheep and setting fire to the Vikings' thatched wooden huts. Their weapons of choice are generally hammers, swords, and nets, placing a premium on strength and bravery. Hiccup cannot contribute with his muscles, so he invents machines to fight the dragons. In the film's first battle, he manages to down a Night Fury, the rarest and most dangerous of dragons. The Night Fury crashes some distance from the village. Hiccup finds it the next day, wounded but alive. Hiccup can't kill the dragon, but it is unable to fly away because part of its tail was torn off. The remainder of the film follows the relationship between Hiccup and the Night Fury he names "Toothless." Hiccup learns many secrets about dragons through careful observation of Toothless's behavior, and in the end, their relationship serves as a model for other Vikings. Along the way, Hiccup is put into Viking boot camp with several other youngsters. They are meant to learn how to fight dragons, and in the end one will be given the honor of killing a dragon in a public fight. Hiccup finds the most competent trainee, Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera of Ugly Betty), attractive but unattainable.
Screen shot from How to Train Your Dragon.
What is there in this tall tale of dragons and Vikings for a science teacher to use? Hiccup seems to be based on the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. Hiccup keeps a journal where he makes detailed drawings of things around him, including the first-ever drawing of a Night Fury. Not only is this da Vinci-like, it is a good model of what field biologists have done for more than 150 years. Hiccup also is a designer and engineer, building first a bolo-thrower, then a substitute tail-piece and flight controls for Toothless. The folded canvas and spar design of the tail section looks very much like sketches of flying machines in da Vinci's notebooks. (For something similar, see the drawing below.) Finally, Hiccup is left-handed, and da Vinci is famous for writing with his left hand (and from right to left in mirror cursive). Young science students could do much worse than to model the combination of systematic observation and stubborn trial and error Hiccup uses in the film.
A page from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook. Click on the image to see a larger version at Wikipedia.
I certainly appreciate the presence of Astrid as a strong female character in the movie. She is supremely adept at the physical and intellectual challenges of Viking dragon training. At the same time, she is open-minded enough to consider to Hiccup's way of thinking about dragons. (On her first flight on Toothless, Astrid and Hiccup see the aurora borealis, or "northern lights." Physics teachers might like to mention their production in the upper atmosphere where ions from the solar wind interact with the Earth's magnetic field.)
Physics teachers will likely notice Hiccup displays a good understanding of inertia in the climactic battle with a much larger dragon. (I won't give away all the important plot points here.) Hiccup realizes the more massive dragon can not change direction as quickly as Toothless, and is able to use this knowledge to their advantage. Inertia is a fundamental property of matter often ignored in films (read my review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for some examples) so it is nice to see it used correctly for a dramatic plot point.
In the end, Hiccup is able to convince his Viking friends and relatives the dragons can be allies if treated with kindness. This can be seen as an ecological message: learning to live in harmony with the natural world is more successful than working to tame or defeat nature. Finally, I must mention the strong positive portrayal of amputees in the film. The blacksmith, Gobber, is missing one hand and one foot, and Toothless loses part of his tail but learns to fly again with Hiccup's help. I won't spoil any other plot points here, but it is clear the film makers want kids to see a missing limb is not an insurmountable challenge.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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