Nine years ago, How to Train Your Dragon threw together Vikings, dragons, and a standard-issue Junior Knows Best plot, and came up with something pretty cool.
If it was about time-worn themes of overcoming prejudice and accepting differences, it was also about the young Viking Hiccup’s journey of self-discovery as an inventor and student of natural philosophy.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon was about being a misfit geek in a roughneck world of jocks, and the transformation of the island world of Berk into a more humane place with room for everyone, even dragons of all shapes and sizes.
It was a rare animated story with no human villain, and all the malice imputed to dragon-kind was traced back to one monstrous mega-dragon — a rogue alpha, to use the terminology of the sequels.
The two sequels written and directed by DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and now How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, greatly expand the world and the mythology of the original Dragon. Yet our hero’s personal self-development was pretty much complete at the start of Dragon 2.
Important things happen to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) in these sequels — the rediscovery of his long-lost mother and the death of his father in Dragon 2 and the assumption of the mantle of chieftain, along with other transitions in Hidden World — that could have challenged him to grow as a character.
There’s a gesture in the direction of a possible character arc: We’re told that Hiccup has become too dependent on Toothless, his mighty Night Fury dragon, and lacks confidence in his own skills. But we don’t see Hiccup actually struggle with limitations or self-doubt. There’s no sense of discovery, no moment when Hiccup becomes more than he was, as there was in the first film.
And, to the end, the tough-as-nails women in Hiccup’s life — his once-unattainable love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) and his dragon-master mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) — are given basically nothing to do except believe in Hiccup and encourage him to believe in himself. (I still think Astrid should have been chieftainess and Hiccup should have been village science adviser.)
Despite this and other problems, this world and these characters remain decently engaging for the 100-odd minutes of Hidden World’s running time.
Visually, if not dramatically, Hidden World goes far beyond the colorfully whimsical world of the original. Opening just a few months after James Cameron’s Avatar, Dragon echoed the exhilarating mounted-flight sequences of Cameron’s film. Now Hidden World takes us, all too briefly, to a vast and resplendent realm with a visual grandeur not unlike Avatar’s Pandora. If only we saw more of it!
Both sequels give us human villains: Dragon 2’s brutish, dreadlocked Drago Bludvist, and now the coolly arrogant Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a lean, Teutonic hunter with a shock of white hair reminiscent of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty. Where Dragon made its red alpha the source of all apparent draconian malice, in the sequels, behind every bad dragon there’s a bad man.
In Hidden World, this pattern has become a crisis: The world has become so crowded with dragon-hunting humans that Berk is now a wildlife refuge for all the dragons Hiccup and Valka can rescue.
This taxes Berk to the limit, and Old Gobber (Craig Ferguson), speaking somewhat on behalf of Hiccup’s late father Stoick (Gerard Butler), urges Hiccup to refocus his attentions on his duties as chieftain, pointing out that Berk can’t be home to all the dragons in the world.
Hiccup has no ears for such practical considerations — but a fateful encounter with Grimmel convinces him that the status quo must change. Hiccup dreams of a world where humans and dragons can peacefully coexist, but Grimmel, for poorly defined psychological reasons, is implacably opposed to such a world, and is too dangerous for even Hiccup to take on.
Berk is no longer safe, but perhaps Hiccup’s dream can go on somewhere else: a fabled dragon homeworld that, in flashbacks, he learned about as a boy from his father.
Where Hiccup tames and trains dragons, Grimmel cruelly dominates them. There’s some muddled thinking here: Grimmel accuses Hiccup of wanting humans and dragons to coexist “as equals,” although Berk’s dragons have been portrayed from the beginning as domesticated animals — smart and powerful, but basically big dogs/cats/horses. (The franchise is not called, after all, How to Associate With Dragons in Egalitarian Friendship.)
Grimmel regards Hiccup’s dream of peaceful coexistence as dangerous, and expresses concern that Hiccup’s ideas will spread — as if the Berkian experiment were in any way unsuccessful. Grimmel reminds me in a way of the third Hotel Transylvania’s similarly monster-prejudiced Van Helsing, an antagonist whose fanatical ideas are so obviously past their sell-by date that no one should find them convincing.
Now, though, the ongoing dragon wars raise a new question for Hiccup: Do humans deserve dragons? Are we the threat rather than they?
On one level, Hidden World seems to be angling for a Tolkienesque transition from myth to history, a rationale for why dragons once roamed the earth but no longer do. (The children’s books by Cressida Cowell apparently build to a similar denouement.)
Yet the rationale for the transition here is a mixed bag. Part of it is yet another retread of that hoary trope Humans Are the Real Monsters. The revelation that Toothless is not the last of his kind — that a white-skinned female Night Fury or “Light Fury” exists — points to needs beyond Toothless’ relationship with Hiccup.
Beyond this, Hidden World suggests a growing unease with the whole motif of the domestication of dragons, even Toothless.
Clearly Hiccup and Toothless share a special bond. Yet, as powerful as Toothless is, the loss of his left tail fins in the first film — a destabilizing injury sustained when a callow young Hiccup shot him out of the sky — has left him unable to fly without Hiccup’s help.
In that sense, Toothless is Hiccup’s prisoner, as dependent as any pampered French bulldog in a Manhattan apartment. Hidden World is at best ambivalent about this relationship; the overall impression is that dragons should be wild and free.
Perhaps there’s a case for this. There are animals, such as elephants and orcas, that may be kept in captivity and trained, but that are never really domesticated and do not flourish in captivity. Yet the first film in particular clearly wants us to see dragons as overgrown, exotic cats or dogs, with feline mannerisms and a distinctly canine eagerness to please.
Does this new unease over dragon domestication reflect a PETA-style animal-rights sensibility, misgivings over animal ownership in general? Is there, in fact, a new discomfort with the very premise of “training your dragon”? I’m suddenly reminded of DreamWorks Animation’s hand-drawn Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron way back in 2002, a Western about how miserable horses are in captivity (unless they belong to Native Americans).
Dragon 2 was all but ruined for me by the revelation that Hiccup’s mother abandoned her infant son and husband to become a kind of Jane Goodall to dragons because she thought Stoick would never change. There are no miscalculations of that magnitude in Hidden World. Yet more effort has been put into the visuals than the story.
At the climax is a moment echoing the exchange in the original in which Astrid goads Hiccup with the question “What are you going to do about it?” What Hiccup does in this case (again, this is the climax, so it matters) makes no sense and shouldn’t work — especially against so formidable an antagonist as Grimmel, who has been a step ahead at every turn.
Grimmel is ideally positioned for just the move that Hiccup makes here, with superior numbers and weapons for exactly this kind of attack. Hiccup’s last two plans were far better thought out, and Grimmel easily bested him both times. The only reason he doesn’t go three for three is that it’s the climax and the hero has to win.
There’s some emotional heft in the end, but my overall sense is that we’ve stayed too long in this world. How many fans of this series will care to think about the ending of The Hidden World while watching the original How to Train Your Dragon?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.