There’s a lot of contenders for my favorite film. How to Train Your Dragon was the first of these that I’ve watched, but I’ve also had similarly apical opinions of V for Vendetta, Imaginaerum, and The Martian, of which I’ve generally ended up concluding the last is actually my favorite film, but definitely by a notably small margin.
The best single scene in film in my regards, though, is unquestionably the “Forbidden Friendship” scene from How to Train Your Dragon, depicting the process via which Hiccup and Toothless, as Viking and dragon universally thought to be preordained enemies, come to trust each other as good friends. (Here’s a link to the scene.) This post is dedicated to why.
It’s really weird and ironic that I am using extensive English to convey my fondness of this scene, because as I will amply elaborate later, the lack of verbal communication in this scene, and what the scene manages without, is a crucial factor in its beauty. Unfortunately I will need a substantially shared context only available in speech to elaborate my thoughts on the scene to the detail I desire, so this really much feels like a strange trade-off. As a slightly-related sidenote, I often get this feeling about music as well, that music would speak for itself so much better than the human language description of it, that I’d imagine a more beautiful world where the instructions for music were written in music, that musical works’ titles were in music rather than a spoken language, and that people talked with each other about music via music: direct, succinct, representative, and beautiful. Alas, prioritizing efficient communication requires the otherwise, and a strange feeling of overlaying another layer of dilution on the loss of magic upon explanation.
Speaking of music, one of the sparkling facets of “Forbidden Friendship” is its titularly reflective theme. It begins fading in around 0:50 in the video above, and builds up very gradually over the next three minutes. The theme itself is a wonder, and a heartwarming journey of evolution. It paves a harmony and an atmosphere for growth, making it, for instance, great background music for extensive thought or gadgets. But this also makes the theme the perfect complement for what happens on screen, for something wonderful is being built: a friendship.
As the theme progresses throughout the scene, new lines in the music subtly join in, slowly enriching the musical texture in reflection of the slow building of harmony among the characters. As the friendship grows, so grows the depth of the aural ambiance.
But let’s not forget the interactions themselves that play out in the scene. Starting around the one-minute mark in the above video, words come to a close and action is allowed to fill the full span of attention. The initial sequences of the scene portray Toothless’ continued hesitation to fully become friends, as is well understandable from the not-too-great previous encounter which only ended on a happy note. Hiccup already wishes to make amends for the prior, and is seeking how he could express his dedication to a friendship to Toothless.
Eventually, starting around 2:45, Hiccup is wondering how to successfully earn Toothless’ friendship, given how his previous attempts were not successful, and draws Toothless on the ground with a small twig. What follows is a beautiful decision: Toothless is shown seeing Hiccup’s drawing, but it is left absolutely ambiguous what Toothless made of it, granting his response of acquiring a substantially larger branch and with it drawing, well, clearly not Hiccup, and not clearly anything concrete at all. Is it because Toothless didn’t catch the signal that what Hiccup was drawing was Toothless? Is it because using one’s mouth and a branch of that proportion, it is simply too hard to precisely depict Hiccup? Is Toothless making a drawing that abstractly represents an attribute of friendship? The asymmetric response presents a good mystery and a highlighting of difference, but one piece of it is clear: Toothless quite clearly opted to participate in the same activity Hiccup was partaking in.
What follows elucidates the meaning of Toothless’ apparent scribbles. As Hiccup works out the nature of Toothless’ reactions to his interactions with the scribble, the two establish a communicational success. Hiccup’s procession outwards in the scribble is paralleled by the substantially more active latest iteration of the scene music, both arriving at the climactic moment of the scene: the moment for the solidifying of understanding.
As the journey completes in this moment, the scene tapers into finer and finer levels of spectacular nuance. It is truly incredible to what detail the ending cares to touch on small steps here. As Hiccup first extends his hand as an offer of friendship at 4:14, Toothless is still hesitant, after which Hiccup continues to consider how best to express how much he cares to establish the friendship, and instead extends his head while turning his head away. It probably did come to Toothless that it probably meant a lot that the Viking was willing to risk turning his back to someone that could easily consume him and how much trust he was willing to place on his end, and at 4:27 it’s clear Toothless is reaching the accepting end of consideration. Even still, at 4:34 one can see the really fine detail of Toothless bring his head back and checking himself, considering all the factors briefly before he goes forward for the iconic moment of the film. The scene concludes with Toothless backing from the contact amazed at what has just happened. Certainly, not just Toothless but also Hiccup truly felt the magnitude of the moment, more than pleased by the culmination.
All of this is the rich, layered beauty of the scene. It really touches the soul in reflection of the process of the establishment of connection. It manages to pronounce so much of the subtleties and wrinkles in this process in its particular choices in details, making the experience truly relatable. Through the scene’s four and a half minutes, all the core essentials of the process get delivered fluidly, the bulk of which executes without a single word, magnifying the fact that the scene is here to be a vehicle for the little, simple colors of the emotional experience, pieced together into a vividly colored corrugated landscape. This is the beauty of this scene, this scene that I have unfortunately described and analyzed in words.