An enormous percentage of communication occurs non-verbally. This explains why text messages or even phone calls cannot compare to a real live interaction with another person. And it explains why watching the body language in well-done live action or animated movies denotes just as much about characters as their words.
The relationship dynamics between Stoick and Hiccup, one of the greatest elements of the first movie, as well as one of the continuing great elements of the second, is depicted profoundly through the use of body language. Sentences such as, “Stop being all of this,” “You’re not my son,” and “For once in your life, would you please just listen to me?” certainly carry extraordinary power – but so also do Hiccup’s cringes and Stoick’s frowns.
Hiccup spends almost every scene with his father cringing and wincing. Stoick’s body language, however, changes throughout the film, and definitely brings into perspective his changing attitude toward his son. Stoick’s body language shows his ever-morphing view of Hiccup first as a disappointment, then as an unexpected triumph, then as a traitor, and lastly, as an appreciated gem. The trajectory from rough to gentle body movements especially highlights Stoick’s change perspective and ability to appreciate his son’s unique characteristics.
There are six major scenes where Hiccup and Stoick have personal conversations with each other: the opening scene following the dragon attack, the house scene where Stoick decides Hiccup is going to Dragon Training, the breast-hat scene, the subsequent disowning, Hiccup’s near-drowning, and the final concluding scene on Berk. In fifty percent of these, Stoick towers menacingly over his own son, causing Hiccup to cringe and hunker down very uncomfortably to suffer through chastising. Even other brief scenes, such as when Stoick grabs Hiccup and holds him up in the opening dragon fight, show Hiccup cringing and Stoick yelling.
It is true that part of the reason Stoick looms is because he is seven foot two inches tall, whereas Hiccup is about five foot one. Yet a giant’s presence alone does not make that tall figure so intimidating. In the case of Stoick, though, he constantly leans forward toward Hiccup to glare him in the eye, using his height to appear stern, almost threatening. He stands tall, usually a clear distance away from his own son, and stares down with furrowed eyebrows, squared shoulders, stiff arms, and tightened lips. It gives him a greater sense of authority, and makes him all the more intimidating as he rebukes his son for his actions. Stoick’s body language would make any receptor cringe - and even when he is not glaring down at Hiccup, his son appears to be expecting it.
This appears to be a prevalent facet of their interactions with one another in the first half of the film. If you will notice, even when Stoick uses intimidation as a joke before he congratulates Hiccup on doing well with Dragon Training, Hiccup seems far more accustomed to Stoick’s less pleasant demeanor than his father’s cheeriness – which suggests what type of interaction Hiccup normally experiences with dad.
Physical Contact in the First Half of the Film
As if looming is not bad enough, Stoick’s use of physical contact with Hiccup in the first half of the film is horrendous. The first time we see Stoick touch Hiccup is to yank his son away from a dragon blast - which is all well and good - except that Stoick then proceeds to hold him out off the ground a little bit of a ways from him with one hand, point at the boy with the other hand, and turn his face away to ask someone else, “What is he doing outside?” And when he turns to Hiccup to tell the boy, “Get inside!” he first yanks him in close to stare him in the eye, then roughly shoves the teen away.
Right after the dragon attack is no better. However, instead of shoving Hiccup, this time he drags the boy a great distance in front of the entire village, not once looking at his son, but just stomping with the boy floundering under his grasp. Given the circumstances of having to save his son twice during the dragon attack, plus needing to deal with the wreckage his son inadvertently caused from disobedience, certainly explains Stoick’s furious reaction. Still, that use of body language and physical contact also is incredibly, incredibly painful.
And even when Stoick is calmer, he never affectionately touches his son. He hardly even touches Hiccup period. Rather, he always seems to stand a bit of a distance away. That might be contextual circumstance, but it certainly creates a noticeable visual barrier between the boy and his father. The closest we come to a friendly touch from Stoick is when he decides that Hiccup will begin dragon training. He plops his axe into Hiccup’s arms, fixes his hold on the axe, and then straightens the boy to try to make him stand properly like a Viking. Even that shows Stoick’s regard toward Hiccup; he definitely wants his son to have “extra guts and glory on the side”, not stand there like a wimp.
All in all, then, for the first half of the film, the only times Stoick touches Hiccup are to save his life, hold him away and yell at/about him, shove him, drag him, and correct his posture to look like a “better” Viking. And through this you can see that, while Stoick certainly cares about how his son is doing, he is incredibly disappointed and frustrated that Hiccup differs from him. There is no seen emotional support coming from him regarding his son’s struggles.
Unfortunately, we know from Stoick’s conversation with Gobber that he genuinely cares about his son - he just does not know how to handle him. And thus all his body language comes off incorrectly, only worsening situations between himself and Hiccup.
Stoick oscillates between never looking at his son – such as when he drags Hiccup away from his mess at the start of the film – or staring too intently at him. If even the eye contact between father and son is dysfunctional, of course there is no way the two of them can connect, listen to one another, and understand each other. The first time the eye contact between the two actually is casual and normal is none other than the final scene of the movie. All other times consist of either cumbersome conversations, uncomfortably confrontations, or incredibly intent remarks.
Doing Well in the Dragon Ring
Upon learning Hiccup is succeeding in Dragon Training, Stoick shifts from being an awkward, frustrated, disappointed dad into an awkward, overly excited father. When he visits Hiccup in the shop, Stoick overflows with energy.
We cannot extrapolate exactly how Stoick and Hiccup interacted during more pleasant moments, but one line within this scene suggests that they rarely have any positive memorable interactions – “With you doing so well in the ring, we finally have something to talk about.” This shows that, for all Stoick loves his son, the two of them are so divided they cannot talk to each other at all. In fact, in one of the deleted scenes, when Stoick was about to sail away on a dragon hunt, Gobber had to stand as an intermediary between Stoick and Hiccup and phrase what the other was thinking but not saying.
All this suggests that father and son almost never have uplifting father and son interactions. Hiccup probably feels startled and uncomfortable because he is not used to seeing his father direct such positive energy toward him - in fact, his first sentence to Stoick is, “Gobber isn’t here” - which could not only indicate Hiccup does not want Stoick to see his Night Fury drawings, but that Stoick’s usually visits the smithy specifically for Gobber, not his son.
And Stoick is ecstatic about finally being able to relate to his son. We see the first “friendly” instance of physical interaction, but even that, I feel, represents how Stoick and Hiccup do not yet understand each other. Stoick, excited, hits Hiccup across the shoulder so hard his son tumbles backwards and falls. It is a violent (if well-intended) hit, just as the sport of killing dragons is violent. It might be a friendly gesture, but it also is just as rough as Stoick yanking Hiccup off his feet or pulling his unwilling son across the village.
It is interesting that for all Stoick hunkers down and excitedly tries to relate to his son in this scene, we still see father and son still are physically distanced from another. If there were any time in the first half of the movie for them to be proximally close, it would be now. Yet it never happens. Stoick, even scooting forward in his chair and leaning in eagerly to talk to Hiccup about killing dragons, still is very far from his son. The two of them are trying, but even their relatively large distance from each other shows that no connections truly have yet been made.
The last thing to note about this interaction (see the gif above) is the awkwardness at the end of the conversation. It is the awkwardness of a failed friendly interaction, and it is the awkwardness of a father completely incapable of dealing with his son on a personal level. Stoick’s eye contact shoots everywhere to all corners of the room, barely resting on his son, and cumbersomely staggers out the door and knocks into some weapons Gobber has left right outside.
After the Kill Ring
Hiccup and Stoick are at their worst following the Kill Ring scene, and every second of their interactions together manifests Stoick’s raw emotions. Stoick is so pent up with shock and rage that he cannot stand still like he does in other scenes. Rather, he constantly agitatedly paces – again, this avoids eye contact with Hiccup – and when he does turn toward his son, it is to advance forward almost as though he were attacking his dragon enemies. Hiccup continuously backs away from his own father, but Stoick keeps pressing forward, eyes bulging, intently staring, pushing for more information regarding the dragons, retaliating against his son’s inexcusable actions. This shows two things simultaneously: Stoick’s determination to end the dragon species, as well as his fury against Hiccup.
Three times, Stoick and Hiccup touch each other during the scene. The first is when Stoick throws or shoves Hiccup into the hall, the boy staggering as his father shuts the door behind him for a serious private conversation.
The second instance, Stoick shoves Hiccup aside and marches, turning his back, away from him.
The third, Hiccup again runs to grab his father’s arm to try to be heard, but Stoick throws Hiccup off his arm so hard that his son flies backward and falls down.
And Stoick, still tight and rigid, towers at his worst, staring down at the boy on the ground and pronouncing, “You’re not a Viking. You’re not my son.”
At the worst of his relationship with Hiccup, Stoick stands the furthest away, shows the roughest physical contact, and looms with the greatest difference of height between them. The spatial symbolism is an enormous representation of the emotional distance between father and rejected son. The action of literally turning his back against Hiccup and shoving him aside applies both physically and emotionally.
Stoick saves Hiccup for the third time this movie when he grabs the boy before he drowns. And then he again touches Hiccup before his son flies off on Toothless toward the Red Death. At this moment, Stoick speaks his apology, and here he is far more gentle in his physical contact. His grasp on Hiccup looks firm, but something Hiccup could pull out of if he wants to, and then Stoick gently places his other hand on top. As he apologizes and tells Hiccup he is proud of his son, his body language matches. He recognizes his son’s strengths and can support him – both verbally and through his hand’s unprecedentedly soft touch.
And I find nothing more sweet than when Stoick approaches Hiccup in the battle’s aftermath and cradles his son in his arms. He repeatedly worriedly strokes Hiccup’s hair multiple times before he pulls his son up to his chest to listen for a heartbeat. There is so much fear and care in those frantic, repetitive actions. And the gentleness Stoick shows holding Hiccup remarkably contrasts with his earlier, consistent roughness. His love comes to the forefront visibly now that he respects and appreciates his son’s personal strengths.
Then there is the final scene. Stoick finally demonstrates true tenderness through physical actions. Although he has always cared about Hiccup, he has never been able to express it or know how to handle his unique son, resulting in awkward body language. But here, helping Hiccup limp down stairs, he is comfortably right at his son’s shoulder. It is a change - it surprises Hiccup - but it demonstrates powerfully nonverbally that his disposition toward his son has monumentally changed. Here is the tenderness, the support, and the appreciation for his son that has been tactile-y lacking the entire movie. The two are close, side-by-side, the touch kind rather than rough, gentle and supportive rather than cold and rebuking.
And even when Hiccup turns to talk to other individuals, Stoick remains firmly by Hiccup’s side, a lot closer than he has stood to his son at any other point in the film. And his height is no longer intimidating – he is a supporting, rather than frightening, tree protecting his only child.
Brief Comments Regarding the Second Movie
Stoick is very tactile within the second movie toward the “Pride of Berk,” and also with his wife, Valka. He tucks Hiccup under his shoulders multiple times, all of it very casual, and given Hiccup’s reaction, he is used to this. This demonstrates that Stoick probably actually demonstrates a lot of affection naturally through touch, and retrospectively makes the lack of physical interactions between his teenaged son and himself from HTTYD 1 all the more awkward and broken. It also demonstrates just how well he has connected to his son - although Stoick still sometimes misinterprets his son or disagrees with him, the relationship is undeniably strong and full of love.
Truly the relationship between Hiccup and Stoick is powerful in so many senses - as a narrative, as a depiction of familial love, as a story of personal growth on both sides of the relationship. The body language is so well done in both movies depicting the complexities of this father-son bond. Which is why, as I see it, it is so unforgettable.
THis is honestly such a brilliant analysis! I really like it that you analyzed httyd 1 from a psychological standpoint. I made a similar observation a while ago…
It’s great because you can actually apply concepts from social psychology to this animated movie. It’s such a rich, detailed movie.