How to Mix Your (Dragon) Messages
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on July 14, 2014
Believe it or not films have a life beyond their opening weekend or two in theaters. So How to Train Your Dragon 2 has been out for a while now and, being a fan of the original, I’ve finally caught up with it. I’ll say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel, and the grand scale and fun characters will enrapture young audiences (also, dragons). But the best animated children’s movies have also displayed mature and measured storytelling, so I like to treat them with a degree of seriousness and not just as disposable entertainment. And as Dragon 2 drew to a close, I felt that something was off with the way it decided to wrap things up.
Full disclosure: I admit that I’m most likely in small company on this opinion, so this could just be a case of “looking into it too much.” Hear me out anyway though. Now, when we say a movie is sending a message, especially one aimed towards the younger demographic, we often think that means the characters allude to it in dialogue or flat out speechify the point. But oftentimes, whether it is intentional or unintentional, the writing/direction/etc. sends messages through actions. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule of film.
In that case, the way How to Train Your Dragon 2’s plot concludes contradicts the supposed messages that it was initially promoting in the preceding 90 minutes. When we finally meet the big bad of picture, Drago Bludvist, he’s defined as a warmonger and a man who dominates his imprisoned creatures with brute force. The name Bludvist, which sounds a lot like “Bloodfist,” doesn’t exactly bring to mind a delicate and caring touch. In contrast, Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka displays a more loving attitude towards the dragons she lives with and acts as if she were one of their equals, not their ruler.
The intention is clear: as humans we should respect our pets and not treat them as abused playthings. Hiccup’s peace-minded motivation for turning away Bloodfist’s army is an extension of this, and he’s always treated Toothless like a friend instead of a dog on a leash. It’s also telling that although the Alpha that Valka stays with draws dragons near it, these dragons don’t appear to have the same mindless drone effect that Drago’s Alpha does. But by the time the (rushed) climax rolls around, the thematic intentions of the story become muddled.
During the final battle, after eventually regaining control of Toothless from Drago’s Alpha, Hiccup then commands Toothless to essentially blast the Alpha into submission, causing about a hundred other dragons to bombard the Alpha too until it’s tusk is broken off and the beast gives up. While it makes sense that the pair would choose this tactic to end the battle once and for all, on a story level this doesn’t jive with the morals that these characters have previously believed in. The script doesn’t even acknowledge that our hero was so quickly willing to abandon his ethics for the easy, violent way out.
The problem stems from combining Hiccup’s arc of becoming a strong-willed leader with the otherwise benevolent messages about animals and nature. Once these two threads are intertwined at the conclusion, they don’t click together in harmony. I also got the impression that this violence wasn’t really the Alpha’s fault since he was under Drago’s will, so to finish this confrontation with the Alpha getting so aggressively punished instead of Drago, who manages to escape without fuss, felt wrong-headed.
This wrap-up wasn’t total a deal-breaker in the grand scheme of things. How to Train Your Dragon 2 still largely succeeds on the entertainment front due to its spirited voice cast and epic scope. It’s just that, by the end, the good-natured messages introduced early on lost themselves somewhere along the way due to a lack of follow through. It would be like if Batman established that he won’t kill and then jarringly allows a man to die later on. Oh wait that did happen.