Title: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Written By: Dean DeBlois
Publication Info: Dreamworks 2014
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Both Carrie and I saw How To Train Your Dragon 2 this past week – and we both have reviews. This is hella long, but there's a lot to talk about. We are not going to spoil things – and will try to avoid giving away major plot points as much as possible. But this is a movie that should appeal to a LOT of you: adventure, dragons, a set of wonderful romances, and visual eye candy.
First up, Carrie's review:
Part I – In which I love How To Train Your Dragon 2 so much that cartoon hearts are floating around my head
I spent the first half, maybe two thirds, of How To Train Your Dragon 2 totally blissed out. There are so many things I loved about this movie. The world of Berk is richly imagined. The film shows the delight of flight with such unabashed joy that every single time Hiccup did his human glider thing I went, “Woooo!” Really, out loud. Quite loudly, in fact. I’d apologize to my fellow moviegoers but they were doing the same thing. The dragons are beautiful and bizarre and funny. I saw the film in 2D and I think it's the first time that I walked out of a 2D showing wishing I had seen it in 3D, because I could see how they would use 3D to pull you into the world of Berk take you through the sky.
In addition to the visual splendor, there are a variety of heart-warming relationships –between romantic couples, humans and dragons, and villagers with each other (also some nice work with alliance building!). This movie has very little focus on romance and yet the two romances anchor the whole film in an understated way. Stoick and Valka have a very similar dynamic to Astrid and Hiccup. They have that same ease with each other, and complete trust. And I loved seeing the mature romance between older people given just as much weight, in fact much more weight, than the romance between the younger people.
I’m going to talk more about Astrid and Valka later, but I LOVED the moment when Stoick tells her that Berk is behind her and asks her what he should do. He's not afraid to let her lead. I also love it that Astrid’s competitive, action-oriented personality is cause for admiration.
As an aside, the animation of the faces is usually very simplified and abstract, and the first time Valka smiled, and her face broke out in laugh lines and smile lines around her mouth and eyes. The contrast made her otherwise smooth face come brilliantly to life. I thought that was indescribably beautiful. Cate Blanchett FTW, you guys. An amazing vocal performance and gorgeous animation that respects and values both youth and age. As long as we are talking about things being progressive, a million puppy gifs could not express my joy at how the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is handled, particularly with regard to how they support each other in dealing with disability. They are both amputees, and it’s not glossed over but neither does it ruin their lives – they work with it and in some cases turn it into an advantage (plus Gobber and his endless array of hand attachments is just classic). The director and the actor who plays Gobber have both stated that there’s a line that means that Gobber is gay – unfortunately it’s so understated that it’s not clear what the line means at all. Still, it’s cool that they have been very open about Gobber being gay in interviews since then.
Intermission – In which I tell the various children with me that they can’t jump up and down on the movie theater chairs during the movie, no matter how exciting the movie may be.
And now for a word from the children. “Skylander” is a very bright, funny, active seven-year-old boy. Did I mention active? I was able to reel him down off the ceiling long enough to get this review from him:
I loved it so you should go see it. I loved it because there’s lots of action in it. There’s lots of dragons in it. I didn’t like the sad part. My favorite character is Hiccup because he’s really cool. My favorite dragon is Toothless. I like him because he’s Night Fury and Night Furies are cool. I liked the action parts best. I liked the parts between Hiccup and Astrid and Stoick and Valka. I liked it that there was no kissing [Interviewer’s note – there’s a little kissing, but maybe he missed it due to his jumping off the chair activities. Or maybe he blocked it out of his mind because kisses are icky. Who can say]. I think second grade boys would like it for sure. Maybe second grade girls would like it. It was exciting, not scary.
Our second child reviewer, “Dragon’s Daughter”, is ten years old. She said this:
I think it is a very emotional movie, but it was also very funny and cute. I think that the things that Hiccup encounters and the adventures he goes on reflects what real life is like, because in real life there's dangers – maybe not as big as the ones Hiccup has to face, but real dangers, and sadness but also happiness.
I don't really have a favorite part. One part that I like is the part where Hiccup's mom shows him the dragon world, because it's really beautiful. My favorite character is Toothless. I've always loved animals, but especially mythical creatures. I also love things that are glow in the dark, and Toothless glows. And I love things that are cute, and Toothless' eyes are big and adorable. He's a dragon – who wouldn't like that.
MILD SPOILER: I think the ending was a happy ending. Since I watched the Cartoon Network show, I know that when there's a problem in Berk, people always come to him for help. And at the very end, the village is running perfectly, even better than before.
I think this is a movie for everybody, expect for people who are extremely traumatized by things like battles and death. I think everyone would like this.
Part II – In which I ruin all our lives.
I have a couple of big problems with the movie. First of all, let’s talk about Valka. Valka is introduced as a powerful character. She’s imposing in her mask; she’s tender with the dragons and yet clearly capable and ready to protect them by force. She’s talented and knowledgeable and capable. When the big fight scene comes, Stoick defers to her leadership – one of my favorite moments in the film. But then what? Hiccup and Stoick have to save her a bunch, and then she has nothing to do except look sad and be supportive. I suspect it’s because if she did live up to her initial awesomeness then the movie would only be half an hour long since she'd efficiently dispatch the villain and then have tea. Seriously, if it were up to me, even though I adore Hiccup, the third movie would be an Astrid/Valka road trip thing. Maybe they can go looking for another Night Fury so Toothless will have a mate. Make that happen, DreamWorks. I need girl time and baby Night Furies, stat.
I wouldn’t mind Valka being rescued if there was some mutual rescuing going on. It’s possible that I missed stuff. I was distracted by the antics of my fellow reviewers, one of whom was so excited by the battle that he kept escaping from his seat altogether and the other of whom wrapped herself around my neck. The resulting loss of oxygen might have caused me to miss vital details. Feel free to correct me in the comments. Although I’m not 100% in agreement with this essay, I think it raises some very good points (And I absolutely agree with the essayist’s critique of Edge of Tomorrow, a movie which was startlingly feminist).
Sarah inserts commentary: My perspective on Valka is different, and a bit spoilery so here's white text: Valka is an incredible leader of dragons, and instrinsically strong. Core of steel, just like Stoik. In the battle scene, she does go up against Drago, and holds her own for a bit, until his physical size advantage knocks her down. Stoik saves her, and goes after Drago – but neither Valka nor Stoik can defeat him, because each represents a different worldview. Valka is 100% about the dragons, and the Vikings are second place (or that was her perspective until recently). Stoik is Viking first, and dragons second – a perspective he also had to come around to in the past 5 years, since in the first film dragons are his enemy. Neither one alone is enough to defeat Drago. But Hiccup, whom Valka says has “the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon,” can – because he's the peaceful integration of both of their extremes. Valka and Stoik are badasses, but I didn't see Valka as weak or being rescued. I love that, when things happen, the reasons they happen make sense and reflect and reveal even more about the characters in the story.
Back to Carrie:
So now let’s talk about the villain, Drago. If you look at stills from the movie, there are some in which his face looks grey, some where he looks dark brown, and there are even some shots in which he looks green. He has a foreign accent (several reviewers have called it “Eastern European” and his last name is Bludvist) and black dreadlocks. Several movie reviews online refer to him as a person of color and other’s do not. He’s voiced by a black actor, which probably influenced my perception of him. Regardless of what his ethnicity is supposed to be (and it’s a fantasy world anyway) he’s coded as “dark” (the dreadlocks, the dark clothing, always being in shadow) and as “other” (the accent), which is animation-ese for “bad”.
Look, I know that making the villain be draped in darkness, whether it’s contrasted with a pale and possibly slightly green or blue face (Cruella De Ville, Ursula, Maleficent) or whether it incorporates darker skin than the hero (Jafar, Scar) is a quick, easy way to say, “Don’t trust this person! He/She is scary, mysterious, and easy to recognize!” But it’s a cliché. It’s lazy. And I can’t help but think that if I were a Black kid, or a Middle Eastern kid, or a Hispanic kid, that this would wear me the hell down.
Even if you think of Drago as white, and there’s plenty of reason to (his stump is a pale color, for instance), he’s explicitly described as foreign (as “Other”) in the most threatening sense of someone who is unknown and unknowable.
He’s a scary, implacable guy from another place who can’t be reasoned with and must be fought and killed. It may or may not be racist but it’s sure as hell xenophobic. Here’s a good essay by Olivia Cole on the topic.
The one thing you’d expect me to be enraged about that didn’t bother me at all was the facial scarring, which is another frequent code for “bad”. In this context, Drago’s scars were, I thought, a testament to his very sparse backstory, which involves dragons attacking his village (he’s written as a mirror to Hiccup).
Part III: In which I sum up all my feels
Look, you don’t see me griping about race and gender in, say “Transformers”, because frankly Michael Bay does not give even the tiniest of fucks about what I think about race and gender. I’m holding How To Train Your Dragon 2 to a high standard because I think this is a franchise that tries really hard to convey positive messages about diversity and acceptance. And they have succeeded to an amazing degree. I’m proud of these movies (and the cartoon show although I haven’t seen most of it). So it’s kind of a compliment that I expect this movie to really step up – it’s earned my respect and I’m respectfully pointing out that there’s room for improvement.
So overall – yes, it’s a great film. Yes, you should see it in 3D. You should see it once with kids so you can watch the wonder on their sweet angelic little faces and once without kids so you can concentrate on the movie and catch the details – the trope “funny background event” describes pretty much the entire film! And then you should buy all the books, which are completely different but utterly enchanting, and read them all. Or, get the audiobooks, which are read by, wait for it… David Tennant. Sigh!
How to Train your Dragon (the first one) is one of my favorite movies. I've watched the television series, Riders of Berk, and Defenders of Berk with my kids. I own the soundtrack (it's amazing) and already bought the soundtrack to HTTYD2 as well. I was predisposed to like the sequel because I like everything else about this storyline, though I admit I was nervous about going to see it because, well, if the sequel didn't live up to how much I love the story already, I knew I'd be bummed.
I could not have loved this movie more.
After my initial email conversation with Carrie, I went and saw it again by myself (meaning, at key moments, I didn't have a 6 year old on my lap clinging to me and could pay closer attention). I enjoyed it as much the second time as the first, and would happily go see it again. This is easily one of my most favorite animated series, and the more I thought about it, the more I realize it has bucketloads of my catnip.
Let's start with Hiccup: he's my favorite kind of hero. When I say I like men who are short and dorky, Hiccup is a perfect example.
He's not a brawny alpha, and he doesn't assert dominance through strength or brute force. In the first movie, he's smart, nerdy, curious, and the opposite of brawny. Hiccup's strength is his intellect, and his determination. Gobber remarks in both the first and the second movie to Stoik, Hiccup's dad, that Hiccup is as stubborn and bullheaded as Stoik was. When Hiccup is convinced of something, he won't listen to anyone telling him he's wrong – and that trait is both an asset and a liability. He's not afraid to stand up to his father when disagrees with him, and he's not afraid to question established knowledge and “the way things are.”
One of the themes of this film and the first one (and I can't get into details because I don't want to spoil it) is that people can change. Hiccup has the ability to show people what change would mean, and how to bring it about, and he leads by example. He shows people what's possible instead of telling them or insisting on it.
The other teens come to respect Hiccup's leadership and problem-solving strategic skills because he can combine all their strengths into a useful offense – and Hiccup's goal is to create peace. In the first movie, he wanted peace between the dragons and the Vikings. In the second, he wants peace with Drago, who he's told is amassing a dragon army. His father hears Drago's name and immediately starts preparing the village for war, and Hiccup refuses to believe that war is their only option. He is unstoppable, but he doesn't go against his father or anyone else who tells him what to do. He goes around them, and fighting is his last option. Astrid is a warrior, and so are all their friends, but when shit gets real, they all know to turn to Hiccup and ask, “What's the plan?”
The best part of the sequel is Hiccup's relationship with Astrid. I learned this week that having a OTP (one true pair) is like having a relationship with a relationship. That fits my complete silly besottedness with Astrid and Hiccup. In the first movie, there's a sort of grudging possibility. In the television series, there are a few moments where they seem to be more than friends, but in both the first film and both seasons of the tv show, they're 14 or 15 years old.
In How to Train Your Dragon 2, they're all 20. It's five years later – and Astrid and Hiccup are absolutely a couple. AND OH GOD THE ADORABLE FEELS AAAAAAGH. I need a minute.
Y'all. Their relationship in this movie makes me so happy. I love Astrid and her relationship with Hiccup as much as I love Hiccup. They are friends who support and care for each other. Astrid understands Hiccup and argues with him when she thinks he's wrong, but understands that he has to figure things out for himself. Hiccup never stands in Astrid's way or tries to protect and rescue her constantly – he knows she can take care of herself. She's a trainer and leader, and among the best dragon riders.
I watched the first movie again this week and Astrid's sense of self is evident there, too But when Hiccup isn't around, Astrid leads – she's, as America Ferrera, who does her voice, said in an interview, his defender and champion. Hiccup is still trying to figure out how he fits in his world, and Astrid, as he says, always knows who she is. Here's a clip from How To Train Your Dragon 2 (an edited one – the scene is a bit longer) that shows both their relationship, and how Hiccup sees Astrid:
The ways in which their relationship balances is just perfect. I love everything about it.
Astrid also has considerable agency, and she chooses who she's with. In the first movie, Snotlout is trying to impress her constantly, and she has no time for that.
There were two scenes in How to Train Your Dragon 2 that were the only times I can remember seeing Hiccup initiate kissing Astrid. In the first movie, she kisses him. There are kisses in the tv show, and both times she initiates them. In this world, Astrid has agency and control of her choices, and kisses whomever the hell she wants.
But by far my favorite part was that the sequel was NOT about their relationship. Their relationship just is. There isn't some stupid jealousy plot or triangle or some external interference between them. They are a couple and they take care of each other. They have each other's backs in the most equal (and adorable) sense. It's just delicious. So they are, in the fandom sense, my OTP.
While I disagree with Carrie's interpretation of Drago, I completely understand what she's saying: casting a “dark other” as the big bad is indeed lazy and pisses me off. But in this case, with this specific series and these characters, I don't think the writers are lazy, and don't believe that Drago was meant to be read as a person of color. Carrie mentioned his appearance, and the thick dark dreads-style hair he has. I saw that as a contrast to another character who wears a mask with spikes on the top, a mirror and opposite to Drago in both appearance and methodology with dragons. When he takes off his prosthetic arm, the skin beneath is white, as is the skin showing on his other arm. The close ups I saw of his face showed his skin as matte and grey – like he was covered with scars. Here are a few screencaps I found – and you can see the variation in Drago's appearance in various scenes:
Granted, this world is full of white people (with mixed Scottish, English, and American accents, which is hilarious), and I do hope that How to Train Your Dragon 3 and 4 broaden the community of people in their world. But because the storytelling has taken on difficult choices throughout the series, I don't think they would rely on lazy racism to create a villain. That said, I know other people have seen Drago as a villain of color, and I certainly would not ever say their interpretation is wrong or their feelings of anger and offense are unjustified. In the images above, I can totally see Carrie's and other viewers' perspectives. I didn't see it that way, but if you go see the film, I'd be very interested in hearing your point of view.
Finally, the animation, visual effects, and technology evident in this film are also incredible. When I did an interview with romance cover artist Joe DiCesare, who specializes in photorealistic painting for both covers and motion pictures, he mentioned he was working on the clouds and some of the painting for this film. The clouds, the ocean, the backgrounds… I can't get over how realistic and defined things were on screen – definitely worth seeing in 3D.
Look at the difference in Astrid's hair from the 2010 movie and the 2014 sequel:
And then there's the difference in Hiccup. Good grief.
The way in which the continuing story of Berk and its community evolves and changes since the first film is fascinating for me. I keep going back over different parts in my mind, and I think Carrie and I could have gone on for days talking about the relationships between the different characters, like Stoik and Gobber, the other teens – there's a really hilarious reversal of the male gaze in this film that still makes me laugh. The voice talent, the artistry and the story telling are all magnificent.
I hope, if you go see How to Train Your Dragon 2, that you'll come and share what you thought of it.