I’m a Viking historical reenactor in what’s left of my offline life, and last week my group and I provided promotional color for a sneak preview of the new Disney animated flick, How to Train Your Dragon. We posed for pictures, gave away stickers and temporary tattoos to the children, and terrified people with our impassioned denunciations of horned helmets (in case nobody told you, they’re totally inauthentic).
This was the big IMAX theater out at the Minnesota Zoo, in Apple Valley. The theater people couldn’t have been nicer, and we got in to see the film for free (I marched past the ticket takers brandishing my sword, crying, “THIS is my ticket!”).
How did I like the movie? Well, it’s complicated.
One of my companions put it well when he said, “I’d have loved this film when I was eight.” It’s a well-done and clever movie, with interesting characters, good dialogue, and outstanding visuals (we saw it in 3-D, which made it even better). If you’re thinking of taking your kids to it, I won’t tell you no. It was lots of fun, and pretty harmless.
And yet, I have objections.
And it’s not just to the horned helmets.
Actually, the horned helmets are pretty irrelevant. Historical accuracy has nothing to do with this film. It’s a fantasy film about fantasy Vikings in a fantasy world—the world of Wagnerian operas and Hagar the Horrible. The Vikings’ home, we are told, is a town called Birka. But it’s so radically unlike the historical Birka (which was a real, albeit far less geologically interesting, place) that you have to just accept it on its own terms.
No, it was the subtext that annoyed me.
My friend disliked what he saw as the typical Hollywood deprecation of strong manhood. This is another in a long line of stories where the quiet, physically less developed, more cerebral guy saves the day and gets the girl, while all the tough guys have to hang their heads in shame over their stubborn prejudice that violence has uses in the world.
I understand his feelings, although I couldn’t help identifying with the hero (whose name is “Hiccup”). I was a quiet, physically less developed, cerebral kid myself.
But my objection is, I think, related to his.
The lesson of the movie (this isn’t much of a spoiler, since it’s pretty obvious if you’ve seen the trailer) seems to be that there are no enemies, only friends we don’t understand well enough yet.
It posits a world in which everyone wants the same thing, and no one’s ends are incompatible with anyone else’s. Nobody really wants to kill anybody. We’re just conflicting with one another because we misunderstand each other.
This is very nice, but it doesn’t describe the real world. In the real world, there actually are people who want to kill us, not because they don’t understand us, but because they do understand us, and hate what they understand. And there are people on our side who know they have to kill, because they understand the other side, and know what they’re trying to do.
Also I think it’s a little self-contradictory (though no one will probably notice) that when the Vikings and dragons join forces in the end, it’s against a greater enemy, one that threatens them both.
Why didn’t they try harder to understand that enemy?
Ah well, it’s a nice movie, and I think your kids will like it. But read them the Chronicles of Narnia afterward.
I can understand some of your points, but I’d like to go back to the “big, strong guys hanging their heads in shame”. Actually, I don’t think anyone hung their head in shame, except Stoick for the way he treated his son.
The movie promoted equality in women and in those with disabilities and that, I think, is the real message. The movie shows that you don’t have to be the strongest to win everything, that woman can also be strong, that people with disabilities or disorders can still function perfectly well in society.
Was it a bit toned down? Yes, but it’s meant to be a child’s Dreamworks movie (though the majority of adults I’ve talked to about it have also immensely enjoyed it). But even there, Dreamworks pushed their normal boundaries and what seems to be the normal boundaries for most kid shows. The dragons weren’t cute (except for the Terrible Terror, I suppose) and cuddly and fuzzy and didn’t talk. They made real dragon noises and Hiccup had to be careful around Toothless, because the dragon could very well have bitten his hand off. The village may have learned to work and live with the dragons but the dragons were still dangerous, which was refreshing to see. Also, I for one, enjoyed the lack of normal innuendo’s.
Interesting insight, though. Thanks for writing out your thoughts. I can understand maybe being annoyed at the lack of historical accuracy because one of my friends doesn’t want to see it because he doesn’t understand putting vikings and dragons together and such stuff. Anyway, though.
Those are my thoughts. 🙂
Your point has merit, but I still hold that dragons bear a definite traditional symbolism. Stories about fighting dragons help teach children to fight powerful evil (recall, for instance, the young man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, or Bonhoeffer joining the plot to kill Hitler at the price of his own life). I fear that our culture no longer wants children to learn that lesson, hence all the friendly dragons.
I stumbled upon this and wanted to add a comment, if I may. I don’t think the message is contradictory at all. You say it yourself, the dragons and Vikings work together to defeat a common very real enemy. There are dragons around the world we don’t really understand, but they aren’t are the real enemy. That’s something a lot bigger than individuals or societies for that matter, and with a little common understanding, we could defeat the real enemies too.
I should probably mention that the father/son relationship is one of the strengths of this movie. Hiccup’s father (along with the one-handed, one-legged Viking who teaches dragon fighting) is portrayed as a bit clueless and hidebound, but both of them honestly care about Hiccup and are genuinely worried about his prospects in a dangerous world. Which turns out to be not so dangerous. Except — wait a minute — it is.
Great point, Ben. The things dads must endure for their sons. 🙂
But according to James Bowman fantasy never describes the real world … unless you actually believe in the fantasy you’re creating. But I digress.
This trend of heroic cerebral geeks who can pacify bad guys because bad guys are “only friends we don’t understand well enough yet,” has its roots in Hollywood’s inability to identify with rough men who are willing to stand in the breach, men who willingly dish out gratuitous amounts of violence in defense of friends and family.
Just as the Hollywood ponytails failed to get the message that people really, really want to see good films about biblical stories (Passion of the Christ), they are equally failing to get the message that people really, really want to see tough good guys dump gratuitous violence on evil men (300).
I enjoyed this review, but truth be told, I could have stopped right here: “One of my companions put it well when he said, ‘I’d have loved this film when I was eight.'” As it happens, my son will be eight in June. I’m taking him to see the movie tomorrow. I suspect my objections to the film will be more than offset by my son’s enjoyment of it.
But, really… if it’s better than Planet 51 or the $#@($*& Squeakuel, that’s probably good enough for me.
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