Lost in the Movies: Now Playing: How to Train Your Dragon

Now Playing: How to Train Your Dragon

If there's one form that's been thriving recently, it's the animated film. In the live-action realm, other genres have proved popular without really tapping it into the traditional sources of America's cinematic strength (imagination, storytelling, fantasy). Non-animated movies often seem to have lost touch with the power that  old Hollywood exuded. Contemporary screenwriting focuses more often on themes and ideas than stories and feelings, technique has adopted the fragmented point of view, and while naturalism has been avoided a surface "realism" is all the rage - blockbusters are darker and grittier than they were in the past (though, ironically, excessive CGI has rendered their textures less real than ever). Live-action films have achieved a "flatness" - a focus on surfaces and text - while animated films thrive in a world of created depth, in which computer animation is finally un-shackled from its obligation to dutifully mimic reality and allowed to range free. Most of the great animated films of the epoch have been Pixar movies, but How to Train Your Dragon may be Dream Works' strongest contribution to the pantheon yet.

It's appropriate that this movie comes from the studio Steven Spielberg founded. Its tale, about a gangly, awkward Viking boy who befriends a wounded dragon - even as he's supposedly training to kill that very species - is obviously close kin to E.T. The central creature, a "Night Fury" serpent of the sky, even looks a little bit like the famous alien, with his big eyes and wide mouth. More importantly, the storytelling is embued with the Spielbergian sense - a close eye for familial relations and youthful imagination filtered through the glorified tropes of modern mythos, in this case medieval fantasy rather than science fiction. Which is to say that the movie does not particularly subvert nor expand upon certain devices - the firm father, the dreamy boy, the "Hero with a Thousand Faces" story points starting with the call to adventure. Instead, it utilizes these devices in a new context, investing them with a specificity that makes them seem unique rather than stereotypical. In doing so it reminds us of the virtues of classical storytelling and mythology, even as it adds new tweaks here and there.

The question of why animated films demonstrate these once-ubiquitous strengths better than live action (or the hybrid cartoon/live action form which predominates today) is worth considering at length. Among other hypotheses, the team-oriented nature of animated filmmaking may bear a closer resemblance to the process behind the great works of Hollywood's Golden Age (TV, too, utilizes this framework and is experiencing a renewed burst of creativity). Perhaps, the target audience being children, the virtues of simplicity are employed whereas most blockbusters, aimed at adolescents, cater to the superficially complicated pretensions of that demographic. One could rattle off a litany of plausible causes, but what of this particular film?

Hiccup is a Norseman - or rather, Norseboy - whose scrawny frame, brainy neurosis, and whiny voice immediately put him at odds with the brutish, hardheaded community. That said, his elder Vikings - and even his bullying, stupid peers - are not portrayed in one-dimensional fashion. Though their thinking is eventually shown to be misguided, we're led to understand their motivations for fearfulness, to admire the pearls of wisdom scattered throughout their ignorance, and to sense the humanity beneath their tough exterior. Anyway, Hiccup wants to prove his worth and successfully shoots down the most mysterious and terrifying of dragons - a Night Fury. Yet he can't finish the job, and finds himself repairing the creature's wounded wings instead of slaying it, and then learning how to ride the dragon (nicknamed "Toothless") instead of running away. There's a girl, a tough tomboy in the spirit of the times (see also Wall-E) whom Hiccup eventually impresses and woos - riding a dragon is one hell of a first date - but Hiccup's greatest concern is to balance the violent, aggressive world of his father with the freedom and sense of exploration he discovers with Toothless. Superb, exciting sequences follow, and while Hiccup can be grating, Toothless is a fantastic animated creation, one of the best in an especially strong era.

Yet the film, for all the simplicity and classicism I've celebrated, also offers more to chew on. The story has been accused of harboring a "left-wing" agenda, and the suspicions are not altogether unfounded though to put so narrow an ideological tag onto it is rather over-explicit. The movie's message is that we fear what we don't understand - a moral which has graced entertainment (particularly children's entertainment) for a good century now. Nonetheless, the ways in which this storyline dovetails with revisionist histories of Western civilization are compelling (and I'm especially attuned to this right now, as I'm reading several historiographical works, left-wing and otherwise - like Edward Said's Orientalism, which is actually pertinent here). The sensibilities of the Vikings are warlike but also technocratic - their notion is that one must be trained into a system of organized and informed hostility (there is a whole training regimen in place; wrongheaded the Vikings may be but they are also quite thoughtful and even sophisticated in their approach to dragon-warfare and indoctrination into manhood/warriorship, which are seen as one and the same).

How to Train Your Dragon ultimately mutes its critique of militarism in two fundamental ways - and the title gives one clue how. The dragons in the movies are animals, ultimately domesticated: the movie is ultimately not about transcending the bounds of one's own civilization to empathize with another. Rather, much like the Orientalists Said decries, the purpose of its educative process is to exploit and utilize the other culture for one's own race. It's telling that the "other" is an animal - not a human like us in another film, but another creature altogether, and a fundamentally lesser one as well. For better or worse, How to Train Your Dragon is not about the journey from genocide to multiculturalism but rather the transition from a warlike approach towards other societies to a more sophisticated, and even more controlling, imperialism. The film is thus much less subversive than Avatar, but it's also far smarter - in the way it equalizes the ground between the Vikings and dragons (instead of making the Vikings merely exploiters) and in the way it refuses to simply indulge in the same black-and-white dogma it's decrying, just with black and white reversed (as Avatar does).

The second way the movie mitigates its critique of the fearful, militant mentality is by giving us a villain who confirms all the worst suspicions of the Vikings: a gigantic super-dragon whose "Queen Bee" status exploits all the other dragons. In the climactic battle, the film actually provides a ringing endorsement of Western cultural values: the facility of battalions made up of free individuals against a totalitarian hive mentality. Herodotus said that the Greeks defeated the Persians because they were free: the same could be said of the Viking teens who improvise a strategy while whirling around the colossal monstrosity, "winging" it both literally and otherwise. Now it should go without saying that one can enjoy the movie without employing this level of analysis and metaphor (most of which is probably unintentional, though still indirectly inspired by the ideas I mention). Indeed, it's more enjoyable the more one reserves this sort of appreciation for after the fact, the more one lets onself be swept along in the myth and spectacle. But that's just the point: the imaginative approach and storytelling framework which animated films employ yield a multitude of riches.

The film certainly has flaws (foremost its unnecessary reliance on rather glib, and poorly mixed to boot, narration in the opening and closing minutes - a sop to the hey-we're-modern temptations that Dream Works cartoons usually fall prey to). But it's a fun, imaginative, and, yes, ultimately even thought-provoking experience. It comes highly recommended, from these quarters anyway.

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


Hokahey said...

I had read this a while back - when I saw the film, merely as something to see because there was nothing else to see, and I was immensely surprised. I loved it, and I think it's one of the year's best films so far.

I like your interpretations here:

"The movie's message is that we fear what we don't understand - a moral which has graced entertainment (particularly children's entertainment) for a good century now." Yes, a moral that appears in 50s sci-fi films as well.

"In the climactic battle, the film actually provides a ringing endorsement of Western cultural values: the facility of battalions made up of free individuals against a totalitarian hive mentality."

Yes, and the discovery of the hive and the purpose of all that stolen livestock is a great, shocking moment. Very memorable.

Yes, lots of food for thought here, but at the same time it's just a very entertaining and satisfying movie.

MovieMan0283 said...

Agreed - one reason animated films (read: kids' films) can work so strongly is that no matter how much thought is put in to the work, the demands of the "genre" force a clear story and a good deal of fun; essentially, the "entertainment" aspect takes care of itself and creatives can focus on tweaking the form without worrying about destroying it. Other forms and genres have broken from old rules, to usually detrimental effect, but the understanding that kids' films are for kids always forces them to negotiate with classical structures (which usually has the added benefit of enriching the work and enabling MORE variance, since the variants have something concrete to bounce off of).

I love adventurous, experimental films too, but you've got to have a place for grand, old-fashioned storytelling somewhere on the movie landscape.

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