So I recently wrote about how Disney has had some feminist scores in the genre of children's films with Alice in Wonderland and The Princess and the Frog. I would now like to add Dreamwork's How to Train Your Dragon to the steadily developing short list of feminist-ish children's movies I would be happy to show my hypothetical future children.
*Mild spoilers to follow*
How to Train Your Dragon is essentially a retelling of the age old story about a boy and his dog, only replace dog with dragon. As such, it isn't perfect as far as feminist movies goes, but it is definitely a step up from other films which feature a woman being saved by a man. My chief compliant with it is that it doesn't pass the Brechdel Test which stipulates that there be at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The main reason it cannot pass this test is that the main character, Hiccup, is in nearly every scene leaving no opportunity for the female characters to talk to each other. And I'm not certain that if they did talk to each other it wouldn't be about Hiccup.
I'm also not happy that there aren't really very many female characters in general. There is the main girl/love interest, Astrid, and another female in Hiccup's dragon training class who is even less important. Adult women are present in the Viking society portrayed, but they are not critical to the story line. Also, Hiccup's family consists of him and his father, as his mother apparently passed away at some point in Hiccup's life.
Now, aside from the failure to pass the Brechdel Test and the low number of female characters, the rest of the movie is pretty damn feminist:
1) The society the Vikings live in is one of constant battle with the various dragon types that plague their livestock. The sole measure of valor for them is slaying dragons. This is a task equally undertaken by the men and women in their world with an apparent blind eye to any expectation of appropriate gender roles.
2) The most respected elder and decision maker in their society is a woman.
3) Astrid is a kick ass chick. She is at the head of the dragon training class (until Hiccup befriends his dragon, Toothless, and gains insider knowledge the rest of the townspeople never had about dragons.) Astrid is shown as the only person in the class with a natural inclination for practice dragon slaying and does so with cunning and physical strength. She embodies what it means to be a Viking in their world.
4) Astrid and Hiccup are definite gender role reversals. Hiccup is the thinking, feeling creature and Astrid is more the active, physical one. AND the lesson at the end isn't that they must overcome these natural inclinations and conform to gender roles, but rather that it takes a little of both to be successful.
5) Hiccup's father is a hypermasculinized character (as we think of masculinity, but in their society it's more just being a Viking: both men and women are like this) who must learn the values of listening, thinking, and feeling in order to be a better father and person in general.
6) Hiccup (or any other male character) do not rescue or save any female character. Rather the climax is reached and the main adversary is overcome by working together toward a common goal.
7) The resolution of the story line is basically a metaphor for thinking, discussion, understanding, compromise, and united effort over violence and brute force. (Although I don't think the anti-violence message is as clear as it could be.) And the lesson is learned through the actions of a male challenging what he is "supposed to be." I think that in this case, it was better that Hiccup was male and not female, because it sends a message of how masculinity can be and not how it must be due to rigid gender roles.
Basically, I would have liked a heavier involvement of female characters, but this is a wonderful children's film that has layers that which run much deeper than the cuteness of a boy and his dragon. (And trust me, that dragon is DAMN CUTE. Toothless is one of my all time favorite animated characters now.)