“How to Train Your Dragon” is a successful animation film from DreamWorks that finally brings DreamWorks’ stories up to the level as Pixar’s.
The biggest problem with most DreamWorks animated films is that they rely on outside cultural references for jokes (think “Shrek 2” and “Madagascar”). While some of these outside cultural references are funny, many simply fall flat and take the audience out of the story. In comparison, Pixar’s main guideline is that the humor must stem from the story itself.
In “How to Train Your Dragon”, DreamWorks finally sticks to a story without relying on outside cultural references for jokes. Instead, the humor is organic and integral to the story. Even better, the story follows the basic structure of a story itself.
Segment 1: This is the part where we meet the hero, learn about the problem he’s facing, see what’s he’s lacking in life, and get a glimpse of an outside force that will alter his life forever. In this story, the hero is Hiccup, a scrawny Viking kid who everyone treats as a wimp. That by itself isn’t a problem, but his problem is that he’s smitten by an attractive girl, but he’ll never get her by remaining a wimp.
His dead end life is made worse by dragons constantly attacking the village. Although the dragons are the villains, the villain always provides a way for the hero to escape his dead end life. In this case, Hiccup manages to shoot down one of the rarest dragons of all, but nobody believes him. Segment 1 ends with Hiccup feeling trapped in his life with absolutely no chance of ever winning the affection of the Viking girl.
Segment 2: This is where the hero first sees his chance to escape his dead-end life. This is where Hiccup searches and finds the rare dragon he shot down. However, instead of being able to kill it, he frees it instead. The dragon almost kills him, but then lets him live as it tries to fly away, but can’t because part of its tail is missing.
This segment is where Hiccup’s father sets off to wipe out the dragons’ nests forever. Before he leaves, he gives HIccup the chance to enroll in dragon fighting school. This move marks Hiccup’s journey to another world and ends Act I.
Segment 3: This segment is where the hero gradually learns the skills necessary to succeed. The first part is where HIccup gradually learns to trust and care for the dragon. The second part is where Hiccup gradually learns the ways of dragon fighting. What Hiccup learns from being around the dragon, called Toothless, he applies to help him deal with the dragon fighting school classes, where he starts to excel to the amazement of everyone around him.
Segment 4: This segment is where the hero masters the skills he needs to succeed and achieves a False Victory. In this case, Hiccup not only learns how to train a dragon, but he also creates an artificial tail for the dragon, allowing it to fly. As a result, he learns how to fly on a dragon.
Segment 4 is also where the hero’s life seems complete because this is where the Viking girl follows Hiccup and learns his secret in training and caring for a dragon. Now our hero, Hiccup, has not only learned how to train a dragon, but he’s also won over the affection of the girl. Life seems beautiful, and this is the moment of the False Victory.
Segment 5: This segment is where things gradually start falling apart. Hiccup’s father returns from his unsuccessful raid on the dragons’ nest, and is shocked to learn that Hiccup has done so well in dragon fighting school that he gets the honor of killing his first dragon. HIccup enters the arena and tries to make friends with the dragon, but decides that he’s not going to kill the dragon, much to the horror of his father and the village. Then the dragon nearly kills him. Toothless comes to rescue him and winds up getting captured for his effort.
Segment 6: This segment is where the hero’s life completely falls apart around him and he’s left off worse than before. This is where Hiccup’s father now takes Toothless to help him find the dragons’ nest, leaving Hiccup back at the village. Now Hiccup has lost his dragon friend (Toothless) and his father’s affection.
At this point of hitting rock bottom, the hero needs an outside influence to get him going again and this occurs when the Viking girl gives him encouragement to do something. HIccup suddenly says he’s going to do something stupid or crazy, and takes off, much to the delight of the Viking girl.
Segment 7: This segment is the preliminary to getting the hero towards the final conflict. Typically the hero starts off on a high note and then everything falls apart, making the hero’s quest look hopeless. In this segment, Hiccup gathers his friends and they ride all the dragons from the fighting school to intercept the Vikings attacking the dragon’s nest, since the Vikings don’t know what they’re really up against (a giant, monster dragon).
The Vikings attack the dragons’ nest, all the dragons leave, and the Vikings think they’ve won. Then the monster dragon pops up, burns the Vikings’ ships and starts attacking them, crushing their pitiful fighting attempts. All looks hopeless until Hiccup and his friends arrive to save the day.
The monster dragon (the true villain) fights back against Hiccup and his friends and sinks the Viking ship holding Toothless hostage. Hiccup tries to rescue Toothless but is too weak to help and nearly drowns. Now Toothless is drowning too. All appears lost.
Segment 8: This segment is where the hero gets back on his feet and starts to recover against the villain. This is where Hiccup’s father rescues Hiccup and goes back to save Toothless. Now Hiccup and Toothless together can fight the monster dragon. Hiccup rescues his friends and battles the monster dragon one-on-one to the final climactic battle.
Of course, Hiccup wins, but just winning the battle against the villain is only part of the story. The real story is that Hiccup’s actions have now turned his life from a dead end world to a new, thriving world full of promise and hope.
When Hiccup wakes up, he discovers he’s missing a foot (similar to Toothless missing part of his tail), but discovers that dragons and Vikings are now living in harmony. Hiccup is a hero, he helped end the war against the dragons, and he’s got the Viking girl. Life is wonderful again with a true victory.
“How to Train Your DRagon” has garnered much praise and is one of DreamWorks’ better animated films because it sticks to telling a story without relying on outside cultural references for humor. The story follows the classic eight-segment part of the 15 Minute Movie Method. More importantly, it’s an easy film to analyze to see how all segments of a film need to work together.
One key to this movie is the growing trend to relying on stories previously created in other mediums such as books, video games, remakes of old movies, or TV shows. Most original screenplays are now limited to low-budget comedies, so keep that in mind as you write your own story and turn it into a screenplay.
Watch “How to Train Your Dragon” and analyze its eight segment beats. Now go out and analyze another movie that you like to see if it matches these eight segment beats too.