Disability in Animation: How to Train Your Dragon

Series: Disability in Children’s Animation

Spoiler Warnings: How to Train Your Dragon. Also some spoilers for the series, Dragons: Riders of Berk, though not specific episodes.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Loss of limbs. Also, I won’t be talking about it here, but if you watch the movie I would warn that things get pretty rough verbally between Hiccup and his Dad. It all works out in the end, but if abandonment is a trigger for you, be aware.

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Image Description: How to Train Your Dragon theatrical poster. Hiccup is reaching out to Toothless the Dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon came out from Dreamworks in 2010, a couple years before Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. It was based (somewhat loosely) on a book by Cressida Crowell (which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on it at this point). It had a budget of 165 million dollars and grossed about 494 million worldwide. Not as successful as Frozen, but successful none the less.

In fact, it was successful enough to spawn a series, which finished its second season in March, and a sequel (How to Train Your Dragon 2), which is currently in theaters. The sequel will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

How to Train Your Dragon has several characters with prosthetics, and it does a pretty great job of normalizing them. It doesn’t pity its characters who have lost limbs, or talk around their injuries. There are also a couple of characters with other disabilities, who we see mostly in the series.

There are two characters in the movie who have prosthetics. That’s not counting Toothless the Dragon, or any background characters who I might have missed. The series introduces another two, who each have a prosthetic hand.

Gobber the Belch

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Image Description: Gobber, a blond Viking, holding out one of his prosthetic attachments.

Gobber is the town blacksmith. He also trains the younger residents of the town in how to kill dragons, and later, becomes a dragon dentist. He used to be a great warrior, although that’s no longer his focus–maybe due to his arm and leg being missing, maybe because he’s busy blacksmithing. He does fight when they need him, though.

He’s missing his right leg and the lower half of his left arm. Because of this, he developed prosthetics for himself. And these are really cool prosthetics, too. His prosthetic leg is basically a peg leg, but his arm has a ton of different attachments, which we get to see a lot of in the series. The How to Train Your Dragon wiki lists these attachments, including several hammers, hooks, tongs, and a cooking spit.

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Image Description: Gobber with a very large weapon. It has a sheep in it. He appears to have a rough carving of a hand as his prosthetic attachment.

Gobber occasionally jokes about his prosthetics, and happily regales the teens with stories of how he lost his limbs. His disability never presents much of a problem for him, at least not that we see. He’s able to use his metal working skills to help himself–not to mention others in the village. It’s thanks to him that Hiccup is able to make a prosthetic tail for Toothless. He’s also the one who made Hiccup’s leg, and presumably every other prosthetic in the town.

Bucket and Mulch

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Image Description: Bucket (left) is a tall, blond Viking with a bucket on his head. Mulch (right), is a short Viking with red brown hair and a very large beard.

Bucket and Mulch are fisherman and farmers, who work and live together. Bucket is missing his right hand, and Mulch is missing his right hand and left leg. Both of them have hooks in the place of their hands, and Mulch has a peg leg. They serve largely as comic relief (although no more than most of the characters.) They show up in a majority of the episodes in the series. Their prosthetics aren’t mentioned much–they’re just a normal part of life.

There’s something else I want to talk about with Bucket, though:

He has a brain injury.

We’re told that he “lost half his brain” in the episode “Portrait of Hiccup as a Buff Man”. Like the other disabilities in the movie and TV series, this isn’t talked about much, at least not explicitly. They don’t really make a big deal of it, other than the occasional comments about how he’s a “dimwit”, mostly from Mulch. Bucket still does his job, although he most likely wouldn’t be able to without help (he can’t keep straight which resources come from which animals). When he forgets things, Mulch explains it. Mulch will grumble a little occasionally, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it.

Bucket also apparently gained incredible artistic talent when his brain was damaged, which is…interesting. There are apparently real cases of this, however. Science channel talks about one case in a video here (note: pretty vivid description of symptoms of head injury. I had to skip ahead because it was making my head hurt), and there’s an article describing ten instances of this on bestpsychologydegrees.org. (This site doesn’t seem to have any sources, so I am unsure of the credibility).

The portrayal of Bucket is sometimes problematic. There’s not too much to him besides his kind heart and his brain damage symptoms. That particular combination has become something of a harmful trope, but I think for the most part the show avoids this. Bucket is kind, but he isn’t always smiling and happy, and that’s where the real problem with that trope lies. The “dimwitted” comments are the main problem. On the other hand, people aren’t walking on eggshells around him.

It’s worth noting that many of the Vikings seem to be of fairly low intelligence (the buff but brainless trope), (In fact, they most likely have a good deal of bodily kinesthetic or spatial intelligence, as well as a number of other types. It’s only their existential intelligence that is lacking.) This is the source of a lot of the show’s humor, which is unfortunate. They don’t seriously put people down for lacking certain kinds of intelligence, but they do make them the butt of jokes.

Gothi

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Image Description: Gothi, a tiny old woman with a staff and a helmet. 

This is Gothi. I love Gothi. I cannot actually describe how happy Gothi makes me. You know why?

Gothi’s nonverbal!

I find it really exciting when there are nonverbal characters who are still able to communicate, because so many people seem to assume that people who can’t speak can’t communicate. Which is strange, given how famous Steven Hawking is, and given that there are a lot of people who use sign language. But a nonverbal autistic person, for example, is often assumed to be incapable of communication.

Gothi does things like predict storms, and may even be able to tell the future. Disabled and magic is another problematic association which the show plays into.

In the movie and series, Gothi never makes a sound. Instead, she communicates by writing in the dirt with a stick, and by gesturing. Not many people are able to read her writing, though, so it is presumably not in the common language of the town.

Gothi’s part is much smaller than any of the other characters I’m talking about in this post, but she’s clearly an important part of the town. The fact that she doesn’t speak is never talked about or explained. It just is.

Hiccup

 

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Image Description: Hiccup, a skinny brunet teenager, and Toothless, a black dragon.

Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, Dragon Trainer. Meet the hero of the franchise.

Hiccup is pretty cool. He’s the one responsible for the discovery that dragons could be trained. He also made Toothless’ prosthetic, using what he learned as Gobber’s apprentice.

Hiccup doesn’t lose his foot until the end of the movie. He’s knocked out (possibly in a coma) for a while, and when he comes to, his foot has been replaced with a prosthetic, made for him by Gobber. His is a little more advanced than Gobber’s–it has a sort of shock absorber.

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Image Description: Hiccup’s prosthetic foot. It is a multi-piece prosthetic.

I’ve only made it through the first 13 episodes, but so far the prosthetic has been mentioned only twice: once when Hiccup is talking about all that Gobber has done for them, and once when he comments on how “at least he didn’t lose another [leg]” after getting struck by lightning.

Clearly, the big thing you can say about disabilities in this franchise is that they’re treated as normal. Occasionally they’ll be joked about, but only by people very close to the person who’s disabled. Hiccup and his father consider Gobber family, and sometimes joke about his missing limbs (such as “I need a right hand” “good, because that’s the only one he has”). Mulch is Bucket’s best friend, and he’s the only one who might joke about his brain damage. These jokes are very occasional, too, not something that happens every episode.

I give the movie five stars for disability representation. It treats disabilities as normal, and is pro-prosthetic. It also has multiple disabled characters by the end.

The show I give four and a half stars. It still treats disabilities as a normal part of life, and it has multiple disabled characters, one of whom is the protagonist. It also has a non-verbal character. It loses some points for its bias towards certain kinds of intelligence (which is not strictly speaking ableist in and of itself, but is a big part of ableism in our culture), the fact that it plays into some harmful stereotypes, and for the sometimes iffy treatment of Bucket’s brain damage. Mostly they do well with the last one, but I think it could be improved. I can’t say how without speaking to someone who actually has brain damage, but something about it feels off to me.

I definitely applaud this show for working to normalize disability. I say “normalize”, but it’s important to note that they aren’t making disabled people conform to “normality” as society sees it. Society doesn’t see disability as normal, and that is what this show is working to change.

Images from How to Train Your Dragon wiki.

Note: I wanted to say here, because I don’t think I’ve said it before, that if I use language that is offensive, please call me on it. I do Google things, but that doesn’t always give the whole story. For instance, I refer to certain prosthetics in this post as peg legs. I know that this is an offensive term when used to refer to people, but have made the assumption that it’s okay when applied to prosthetics which fit that description. If this assumption is wrong, please let me know.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Disability in Animation: How to Train Your Dragon

  1. i watched an episode of the television series and noted this normalization almost immediately. As US society grapples with more individuals with prosthetics due to the various wars we’ve been in lately, I feel the show is doing a service for disabled individuals rather than a disservice, even if it’s not perfect. It teaches children that disabilities do not define individuals, they are just part of the person, good or bad as the person.

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    • I agree. It also doesn’t go too far in the other direction: often when people try to convey the message that people aren’t defined by their disabilities, they do it by erasing those disabilities or, more likely in the case of a show like this, claiming that disabilities don’t stop people from doing things (which is another kind of erasure).

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  2. I don’t normally comment on these but I have become obsessed with this series. I was surgically crippled by ankle surgery resulting in one leg that is an inch and a half shorter than the other. It’s incredibly rare and when it’s an inch or more it takes away your ability to walk. I became obsessed due to hiccup. In the first series it is not til halfway through that they really show his handicap. Rewatch it and you will notice you don’t see a lot of shots of his new leg until halfway through. Even with that…he is portrayed as normal and as the series matures they show his struggle with his leg. As LLD is very rare both as congenital and surgical he is the only hero that inspires me and I feel I can relate to. Season 3 of the series is a dream come true in making me feel not alone. I even found that although it’s a cute story….the first movie is my least favorite because of Hiccup not being disabled until the end. His unexpected stumbling and need of help made me smile because I deal with that every day. I did really like Gobber though, especially as he seemed very kind and supportive and…again…didn’t walk right. In animation and real life seeing a character who stumbles, or walks a little funny because of their legs is important to me. Just the same as seeing a character in a wheelchair take certain moments to stand out of dignity. I also really like that his dragon is crippled and needs his help to fly and they bond over it. I am handicapped and will have special shoes and a wheelchair for a very long time….and this is the first time I feel I have a hero.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I love to hear about other people’s experiences and how these characters have effected them. (Sorry it took a bit for me to approve it–I’ve been out of town.)
      I really need to rewatch/watch the rest of this show–since I made this post, I’ve become more mobility impaired, and I’ve really longed for more representation. (I actually have a stuffed Toothless, because disabled dragons are amazing.)

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  3. I love httyd because it’s an amazing show and I have to bond with my step dad and find things we both like but when I try to impress him he doesn’t understand and I have an awkward gate which prevents me from running to much and even know they never say hiccup has autism I see a lot of characteristics in him that I have and I have autism and a brain disorder that makes my brain very small for my age kinda like bucket plus with my autism I actually bond much better with animals or pets than humans and I couldn’t help but notice hiccup seems a bit socially awkward like me and he doesn’t seem to fit everyone’s world kinda he seemed to be from a silent timeline than the Vikings more advanced and I always make the comment I feel like I should be on a silent planet I’ve always loved hiccup stock toothless goober Astrid and the others I even asked my mother what httyd character she thought I was most like not including gender and she said hiccup.I can totally relate to this movie and let me say I wish they had more like it.

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