What, exactly, does How to Train Your Dragon 2 want its audience to learn from its central conflict?
Warning: herein be spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Use your words, not your fists.
Work hard and you can achieve anything.
Family is important.
Listen to your parents.
Be nice to other people.
True friendship can overcome any obstacle.
Always be ready for an adventure.
The abstract concept of home.
I don’t blame children’s movies for driving home big, simplistic themes like the ones I’ve outlined above. Yes, even the abstract concept of home. What do you think Homeward Bound was about, talking pets?
So, when I went into How to Train Your Dragon 2, I was expecting more of the same that we got from the first movie. Namely, the idea that dragons are misunderstood creatures that just need some love to overcome their beast-like natures. It’s a little unorthodox, but it’s a worthwhile idea for kids to learn.
I was surprised instead to see that the movie took a radically different track than what I expected, in ways that deliberately subverted common tropes in kids’ movies.
The spark of the movie (the first action that sets off all the other actions) is Hiccup’s decision to try to reason with Drago, a madman intent on commanding all the dragons in the world. This goes against the advice both of his parents provide, which is essentially that some people can’t be reasoned with. But Hiccup is confident that his skills of persuasion can work on anyone (after all, they worked on his bull-headed dad). So he sets off to get into it with Drago.
During the film’s climax (the central turning point for action), Hiccup gets exactly what he wanted: a chance to reason with Drago. His persuasive speech is great, of course; he’s a naturally born orator and has the benefit of Hollywood screenwriters behind him, Looks like this film is trying to drive home the same theme as its predecessor: fight with your words, not your fists or your dragons (unless it’s absolutely necessary).
This is precisely when everything goes off the rails.
Drago counters Hiccup with his own twisted logic about why he wants to control all the dragons. He then manipulates Hiccup’s dragon Toothless into killing Hiccup’s father and flies off with everyone’s dragons under his command.
Dark stuff, right? Stuff that doesn’t feel like it belongs in a children’s movie.
Indeed, this has more than a few commonalities with The Dark Knight: Hiccup is reminded over and over that Drago is a man who can’t be reasoned with, and that arguing with him won’t solve anything. His parents both advise him that fighting and defensive maneuvers (in other words, action) is the only way to deal with this new scourge. And Hiccup learns the hard way that this is all too true.
In interviews, Dean Deblois (the writer and director of the trilogy) explained that he tried to conceive of this movie as his trilogies’ The Empire Strikes Back. It expands the universe, challenges the status quo, brings in new characters to deal with, and most importantly, complicates what had been a very straightforward hero’s narrative.
All of a sudden, the world Hiccup (and, by extension, the kids in the audience) occupies is no longer black and white. Strange, because it’s still somewhat black and white (some people are good, some people are bad), but redemption is no longer a valid endgame.
Why would a children’s movie make that claim? I have a theory:
The movie, like the best children’s films, isn’t interested in condescending to its audience. The first movie’s audience is four years older, and they’re rapidly learning how big and complex the world is. Introducing the idea of incorruptible evil into their minds is a facet of everyday life that they’ll learn eventually, so why not in the safe space of a movie theater, where their parents can discuss it with them at length after?
But more than that, by forcing the movie’s protagonist to resort to force to repel the primary antagonist, the film also reunites with the first movie’s theme: fight with your words, not with your fists or dragons, unless absolutely necessary. In the first movie, the caveat was enacting because there was a giant dragon that posed a real, irresistible threat toward every human in Berk. It couldn’t be reasoned with because it was a giant beast bent on destruction.
In the second movie, the caveat is enacted because our heroes encounter a human being who is the equivalent of that dragon. Drago isn’t interested in anything other than power for its own sake. He enslaves instead of liberating, commands instead of asking, and whips when he could be earning respect. His twisted logic allows him to be that dragon in human form: something with which there is no arguing, something which must simply be defeated by any means necessary.
We don’t encounter that kind of evil in the world much, but it does exist, and kids will have to discover it at some point. How To Train Your Dragon 2, by incorporating this theory into its storyline, manages to both subvert and reaffirm the themes established in its predecessor.
And really, isn’t that the job of any good sequel?