Friday, July 11, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon for Peace

How to Train Your Dragon
This is perhaps the third or fourth viewing of this film, in preparation of watching the sequel.  And it is as fresh and funny as when I first saw it.

As silly and fanciful as the world is, the characters of Hiccup, his father, and Astrid are excellent characters, better than the majority of characters in any comedy, let alone a children's film.  While it deals with the common themes of a child/parent relationship and a late bloomer, these are not the focused themes of the film.  It is about choosing peace with one's enemies instead of warfare and how it works far better than persisting enmity.

Many of us live in a nation that thrives on enmity, and all parts of the nation must persist in fearmongering and pinpointing who we should hate next in order to have unity.  When an enemy outside the nation isn't clear, then we must target enemies inside the country to be our target.  If we did not have hatred, it would seem, we would have nothing.  In the end, How to Train Your Dragon isn't a film pointed at children at all, but it is a message about welcoming diversity and working together with one's enemies against one's hatred.  It demonstrates that as powerful as the weapons and strategies of war seem to work, the most effective tools for peace are the tools of peace. 

It is easy for parents to dismiss this message because of the context of the film-- it is a highly entertaining comedy (I am chucking right now at the perfectly delivered line, "Thanks for nothing you useless reptile"), and it is a children's film.  But someday I hope that this film along with others will be pointed at as indicating a turning point that is to come, when we realize that creating peace has to do with understanding instead of greater firepower.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
This is one of those rare sequels that plunges into new territory, rather than simply rehashing what made the original film wonderful and popular.  Not only do we go to new lands and explore new storylines, but even the characters of the first film reflect the growth of five years.  There is a shadow of the familiar characters, but they aren’t the same, as if we were meeting our old friends at a high school reunion.

That is the glory of this follow up.  We have no idea where this film will go because it is so new.  Hiccup is different, as is Astrid.  The town, of course, must be different, but we spend very little time there, even as Hiccup himself is determined to explore the broader world with Toothless, his best companion.  This film has fewer laughs, but we hardly notice as it has more action and higher stakes.  And it has it’s first bad guy—Drago, who is both evil and vulnerable.  Everything is so fresh, so powerful, so quick that we don’t even have much time to feel.

This film also continues the theme about enemies and violence.  We see the source of Hiccup’s ability to be a peacemaker, and that impulse is affirmed.  In this film, as opposed to the first, the peacemaking tendency is balanced with the need to protect and, ultimately, with the need to vanquish an enemy who won’t recognize and actually threatens the peace. 

As a storyline, there’s not much to complain about.  As a philosophy, I am disappointed.  All the ideals of the first film—seeing the enemy as more than enmity, meeting the fear with provision of need—is undermined by the second film.  Drago is presented as a man who pursues violence because of fear... those fears could have been met.  But instead Drago was too much of a threat and had to be eliminated. These two points of view could be seen as a balance—a time for peace, a time for war—but in a week in which a victimized nation turns around and victimizes another nation because they “have to protect your own”, it seems clear that the two philosophies can’t work.

Enemies are truly vanquished through love and sacrificed, not war and destruction.  I am so glad to see Toothless and Hiccup come into their own in this second film.  But if I were to make another sequel, it would show how the demand of protection destroys other islands around them, simply because they didn’t belong. 

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