The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
How to Train Your Dragon 2

Written by Matt Denny.

Photo from the article How to write critically about How to Train Your Dragon 2? I’m not asking this question because the film is an animated fantasy blockbuster aimed at kids; a film so resolutely positioned at the entertainment end of the art/entertainment axis that it has no need of further examination. Not only do I reject this claim on principal, I also believe that How to Train Your Dragon 2 has even more to say than other films of its type - setting the bar particularly high for those films following it. Neither do I ask the question out of a feeling that the film is beyond criticism. Yes, I described the film as "near perfect" and a possible contender for my favourite film of the year, but that doesn't mean I'm blind to the film's less than perfect elements. Where then does this difficulty stem from? On further consideration, the obstacle to critical thought seems to lie more with the writer than text. In brief, the problem is fear. I'm afraid that the sometimes brutal nature of analysis will damage the film. After being prodded and poked, deconstructed and dissected, what will remain of that exhilarating kinaesthetic joy that I tried to describe in my review? Even using the word kinaesthetic to describe that particular sensations seems to leave it somehow diminished, somehow dryer.

How then do I overcome this dilemma? Thankfully, I'm provided with a rather helpful model by the structure of the film itself. I will begin by unashamedly revelling in the sensory joys of flight, and try to convey some of the pleasures afforded by the film without getting bogged down in issues of representation, ideology, and meaning creation that I believe are the responsibility of every critic to examine. Eventually, like Hiccup himself, I must turn away from selfish escapism and shoulder my responsibility. Towards the end of this article, I will examine the film's problematic treatment of its female characters, and try to understand not only how but why the film does this. And it's explaining this "why" that is most worrisome, as it forces me to position How to Train Your Dragon as part of a troubling trend in cinema and culture at large. Furthermore, I find that this film-analysis forces me to do a little self-analysis. While self-awareness is invaluable to any critic, like healthy eating and exercise, the process is made no more pleasant by its necessity. But let us put aside such dour thoughts for now, and take some time to consider the abundance of joys offered by favourite film of year.

First off, in the interest full disclosure, I should mention that I really like dragons. Some kids like sports, some kids like dinosaurs, some like cars or trains - but for me it was always dragons. This fascination probably springs from my early exposure to The Hobbit, via the wonderful BBC Radio adaptations and later in my dad's old paperback copy of the book. The cover of said book featured an illustration of Smaug the Dreadful in all his magnificence. It wasn't too long before I wandered into the socially-awkward and chemically saturated world of table-top wargames, and it was the promise of owning painstakingly painted miniature dragons that led me down that particular path. That and an apparently natural inclination towards hobbies that kept me indoors and away from people. So it’s perhaps fair to assume that I'd be particularly drawn to a franchise where a geeky kid becomes a hero thanks to his dragon pal. This may go some way to explaining some of my enthusiasm for the film, but How to Train your Dragon 2 (more so even than the first film) affects me in a way that is more profound than merely fitting a demographic. Part of the film’s effectiveness, I think, boils down to its visceral impact. This is most simply understood in the film's astounding depictions of flight. The opening dragon racing sequence is finely executed, neatly balancing its thrills while reintroducing us to the spaces and characters of the film. Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut and Ruffnut are all referred to by name, and the connections between Hiccup, Astrid, and Stoic are neatly dealt with in Stoick's (rather assumptive) declaration "That's my future daughter in law!" However, it is with the re-introduction of Hiccup and Toothless that the film really soars.

The sequence is thrilling, and notable for the elegance with which it encourages an embodied experience. Rather than plonking it's audience down in the passenger seat and wilfully throwing them around in a disorientating fashion, the film uses a whole range of devices to allow its audience to share the experience of the characters. We can compare this is to the over-reliance on POV in The Amazing Spider-Man's webslinging sequences - an effect I find alienating when surely it’s intended to bring us closer to the character. How to Train Your Dragon 2, on the other hand, uses all the tools at its disposal and is all the more effective for it. Tight closeups on the faces of our heroes, and on the mechanical apparatus that allow Hiccup and Toothless to fly as one give a sense of Hiccup's increased confidence and skill (with a little help from his new badass costume). They're also essential in conveying a very tangible sense of the skill and exertion required in flying. Hiccup must pull levers and engage pedals, all while the world rushes past at incredible speed. There is urgency in these moments, contrasted to the glorious wide shots that make full use of the stereo-space, depicting Toothless soaring effortlessly away into the boundless depth of the screen. There's a pleasurable cause-effect relation here - this precise physical exertion results in this moment of boundless freedom. We might compare this to Anthony Dodd Mantle's superb cinematography for Rush, or the early films of the Fast and Furious franchise, where the physical exertions of the driver are followed by bravura shots inside the engines, and finally wide shots of the cars in motion.

Lisa Purse, in Contemporary Action Cinema, describes how embodiment in action cinema operates as a dialectic between the exertions and limitations of the film-body and the relative freedom of the camera-body. Camera movement can be used to either emphasise a character’s power over space, or reveal their lack of control. This is where Spider-Man fails and How to Train Your Dragon 2 triumphs. Limiting the audience to a rollercoaster POV actually blocks an embodied engagement - we do not share the character's freedom, because our perspective is limited, trapped - and therefore at odds to that of the character. We are passengers, not protagonists. In How to Train Your Dragon 2 however, the camera swoops and soars with the same freedom and grace as Toothless himself. We share something of that bodily experience - just as Hiccup himself does. Having allowed the audience to feel something of what it's like to be a dragon, the film then depicts Hiccup taking the next step - no longer a passenger, but flying alongside his friend. It's here however, that the film switches to using the camera to show the limitations of our heroes. Neither Hiccup nor Toothless can fly alone. With his prosthetic tail locked in place, Toothless's movement is limited, the wide shots now being used to exaggerate the distance between Toothless and the freefalling Hiccup.

In this sequence, the spirit soars, the heart races, and we are able to physically intuit the very core of the film. Not only have we experienced the physical limitations of our two protagonists, the sequence also performs the function of mise-en-abyme. One of the film's core themes is demonstrated in this moment - and that we comprehend it physically should surely lay to rest the myth that spectacle is subordinate to narrative, that thinking is somehow distinct from feeling. In this action sequence, we understand that Hiccup is not the awkward teen of the previous film but neither is he so accomplished that he doesn't make mistakes. It may be a cheesy metaphor, but it is an effective one: Hiccup isn't ready to fly alone. It is only after this sequence that we learn of Stoick's proposal that Hiccup become chief (and are able to delight in Astrid's pitch perfect impression of Hiccup). This positions the film interestingly as a sequel. In the previous film, Hiccup was positioned as an outsider by his tribe whilst he desired to be accepted as one of them. In this film, Hiccup seeks to position himself as an outsider. It’s not just that Hiccup has gained acceptance from his tribe and his family, it’s that he has earned that acceptance on his own terms, not theirs. In the five years that have passed since the first film, Hiccup has managed to shape the world according to his own beliefs - and yet he still feels like an outsider. Hiccup admits as much to Astrid when he claims that he isn't like her, that he doesn’t know who he wants to be.

It's this, I think, that's at the heart of a moment I found inexplicably moving when I first saw the film. It's another spectacular moment, and is near wordless. In fact, it may even be appropriate to describe it as a dance sequence. The scene is part of a montage throughout which Hiccup is getting to know Valka. Hiccup and Toothless accompany Valka and Cloudjumper (who has wonderful, austere, owl-like mannerisms) to a cliff edge to glide on the wind. Valka then proceeds to dance and leap across the backs and wings of the assembled dragons, tousling Hiccup's hair along the way; before settling down to exclaim "This is what it is to be a dragon". I found the sequence to be unbearably beautiful and profoundly moving - but I had no idea why. True, the score at this moment is wonderful (called “Flying with Mother” on the OST) and it has many of the same pleasures of freedom and mastery of space that Hiccup’s introduction has, but none of these elements on their own or in combination, would explain my reaction. It was only on re-watching the film that I realised the significance of this moment: It is when Hiccup finally finds someone who is like him. It's a compelling and powerful fantasy, finding someone who understands you completely. It's made even more powerful when we consider how different Hiccup appears from his father; that he hasn't been able to understand why he is the way he is, until now. As Valka says: after all these years, Hiccup took after her. On discovering that he is like his mother, Hiccup realises that he isn't an outsider, an aberration - he's just his mother's son.

Perhaps what made this sequence so difficult to decode (if not, however, to understand) is the way in which it conveys meaning through what Richard Dyer calls ‘non-representational signs’, referring to elements of mise-en-scene such as colour, movement, sound, texture, and rhythm. Although I dislike the phrase non-representational signs (what is a sign if not representational?), it is nonetheless a useful catch all term to describe such elements. Like the early sequence of Hiccup and Toothless flying, the flying with mother sequence appeals to the viewer’s senses to convey meaning. While it is of course possible to piece together how Hiccup feels about finding Valka from dialogue, (their shared admission that they couldn’t kill a dragon, for instance) it’s this sequence that cements that bond emotionally.

I suggested that we might think of the flying with mother sequence as a dance sequence, and I’d even go so far as to stretch that definition to Toothless and Hiccup’s reintroduction. In making this claim, I mean only to imply that these action sequences have something in common with dance or musical numbers in a musical that, far from being mere supplementary spectacle, reveal something of the characters or plot. For a further demonstration of how this works, we might consider the film’s “true” musical number, Stoick and Valka’s rendition of the “The Dancing and the Dreaming”. Stoick’s initial quavering delivery of the song hints at a vulnerability hitherto concealed, which in turn confirms the character’s transformation from the previous film. Valka’s taking up of the duet suggests her growing belief in Hiccup’s assurances that people can change. The music builds, and the couple dance steps that emphasise Valka’s nimbleness and Stoic’s solid, immovability. The (not so harmonious) harmonies of the song, the distinct but complimentary dance steps not only celebrate the reunion of Hiccup’s parents, but presents them as complimentary opposites. This in turn mirrors the film’s concern with resolving opposing positions. As chief, Hiccup takes on aspects of both his mother and his father’s world view, finding a third way that is both theirs and uniquely his.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 should be applauded, I think, for presenting a world where the choice is not always a clear cut one between good and bad, but often between differing types of good. Hiccup, with “the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon” is able to combine the approaches of his father and mother, both of which have been found wanting individually. What’s particularly interesting about the heart/soul opposition is that it isn’t really an opposition at all. Unlike an opposition of reason/emotion or mind/body, the pairing heart and soul suggests two ways of describing the same thing. Those of cynical bent may pass this off as clumsy writing, but I choose to see it as indicative of the film’s project of resolving differences. Valka’s fierce anti-human, pro-dragon stance is not all that different from Stoick in the first film, it’s simply an inversion of that position. Hiccup is able to solve such apparent oppositions by redefining them. This isn’t about choosing between doing what is best for dragons, or best for humans but doing what is best for dragons and humans.

In earlier drafts of the script Valka was apparently the film’s villain, intent on taking dragons away from Berk for their own safety. Valka’s role in the finished film is, I think, far more interesting. Rather than representing a direct obstacle to Hiccup, as Stoick did in the first film, Valka instead represents a way of life attractive to Hiccup. Valka’s freewheeling existence amongst the dragons isn’t too far removed from Hiccup’s solo flights with Toothless, mapping out the world. There is an abstract sense to the importance of the work Hiccup and Valka are doing, Valka is creating a sanctuary for dragons, Hiccup is an explorer mapping the undiscovered territory around Berk. No matter how important these enterprises may be, there is little sense of responsibility attached to either. Hiccup’s cartographic exploits appear to be a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Furthermore, Hiccup’s exploring is directly represented as an escape from responsibility, slightly colouring the joyous depictions of fight. While Valka’s vocation might at first seem laden with responsibility, what are we to make of Valka’s refusal to return to Berk and attempt to change her husband’s mind? Cloudjumper may have effectively kidnapped Valka, but she chooses to interpret this action as evidence she belongs with dragons, not humans. Although Valka may live among the dragons, she does not rule them. All the dragons in Valka’s sanctuary are under the aegis of the mighty Bewilderbeast. This alpha dragon provides for the needs of all the dragons under its care - Hiccup is surprised to find that the dragons don’t hunt, but have fish provided for them by the Bewilderbeast. This is a lovely inversion of the alpha dragon in the first film, which enslaved Toothless and his kin, forcing them to provide a tribute of fish. There is however something slightly sinister about the Bewilderdbeast. Thanks to its mind control powers, all the dragons must obey the Bewilderbeast - except the babies, of course. This compels us to reassess Valka’s apparent championing of freedom. Valka is free from any responsibility, but is she also free from the burden of decision making? Is that what Hiccup is really running away from?

We can compare this to Stoick, who takes his responsibility as chief very seriously. This is neatly illustrated in Stoick’s (largely one sided) conversation with Hiccup in Gobber’s smithy-come-dragon-garage. Stoic majestically sweeps about the shop, taking customer orders, making plans, and informing Hiccup that a chief’s first responsibility is to care for his people. Indeed Stoik’s claim that a chief protects his own is echoed in Valka’s description of the Bewilderbeast. Hiccup also takes up this refrain, when Toothless successfully challenges the Alpha, allowing Hiccup to accept his role as chief. Importantly for Hiccup, the alpha protects them all, not just his own. The alignment of Stoic with the positive qualities of the Bewilderbeast is solidified in the battle against Drago, especially in the scene where Drago and Stoick square off as the two alphas clash in the distance. In turn, Drago and his alpha embody the alpha’s sinister qualities, those of mind control and domination. How to Train Your Dragon 2 thus sketches a rather complex matrix of oppositions. On the one hand the opposition of freedom and responsibility, on the other freedom and domination. The narrative opposition between freedom and responsibility is a difficult one to resolve in a satisfying manner. Too often freedom is aligned with the most pleasurable parts of the narrative, and so the final acceptance of responsibility seems unearned or unmotivated (this is something I explore in my Bad Neighbours alternate take).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 attempts to overcome this difficulty by presenting a third element, domination, which threatens both freedom and responsibility, in effect aligning the previously opposed terms against this new threat. When Hiccup fights against Drago, Hiccup is accepting his responsibility as chief and fighting for freedom. The responsibility of the chief, of the alpha, therefore becomes the prerequisite of freedom. The film’s coda, in which Hiccup delivers another version of the voiceover that acts as a framing device for both films, Hiccup is shown to be both a responsible chief (overseeing the renovation of Berk) and an active participant in the dragon racing competitions, capturing the golden-snitch-alike black sheep. We could read this as a tacked on platitude - see, even the chief still has fun! - but I think the sequence is more honest than that. Hiccup is absent from the dragon race that opens the film, choosing to work on his map instead. While Hiccup’s solo flights may suggest a purer form of freedom (represented by his solitude, by the wide expanses of open see an sky in the sequence), they’re also presented as an escape, Hiccup fleeing from Stoick’s revelation that he wants his son to become chief. This poses the question of whether Hiccup can be truly free when he is running away from responsibility. The same questions raised by Valka’s reluctance to return to Berk. By showing Hiccup taking part in the dragon race, the film demonstrates a different sort of freedom, a freedom of spirit that comes from acceptance, from Hiccup finally knowing who he is. Furthermore, through the introduction of the freedom/domination binary in the character Drago, we understand that the peaceful existence of Berk is a hard won freedom. Again, the film demonstrates that the best way to overcome oppositions is to redefine them. The organised chaos of the dragon racing seems a fine way to demonstrate this. Dragon racing is just as spectacular as Hiccup’s solo flights, but they take place in Berk, swooping and soaring amongst the buildings rather than in the empty expanse of the undiscovered country. This suggests that freedom is not found outside of civilization, in opposition of responsibility, but amongst it.

Hopefully I’ve demonstrated some of the reasons I consider How to Train Your Dragon 2 to be such a spectacular and sophisticated film. The film demonstrates real finesse in its deployment and negotiation of opposition, as well as working off the first film in the series in a way that demonstrates how sequels can be a rich and fulfilling experience. There are however elements that the film does not position quite so elegantly. One issue is the film’s ultimate acquiescence to Valka and Stoick’s belief that some people cannot be reasoned with, cannot be changed. Although Hiccup is able to convert Stoick, Valka, and Eret son Eret to his way of thinking, Drago can only be defeated through conflict. This is unfortunate, as it suggests that the violent urge to dominate can only be countered by violence. There is I think a hint of a more positive reading in the way in which Drago’s Alpha is defeated. Rather than simply being bested by Toothless, the alpha is only beaten when all the dragons previously under his control turn against him. There’s a tantalising opposition of tyranny versus the collective here, but its ultimately lost in film’s championing of Hiccup and Toothless as the good chief or alpha rather than redefining the terms of the opposition as the film does elsewhere.

The film’s main failing is the way the Valka (and Astrid) disappear from the narrative. This is something explored in detail by Tasha Robinson here, where she traces the tendency for female characters to serve as no more than inspiration and reward for male heroes. Robinson singles Valka out as a particularly frustrating instance of “Trinity Syndrome” because (unlike many so-called “Strong Female Characters”) Valka is otherwise so promising and complex a character. The disappearance of Valka is more than simply an issue of screen-time, it’s an issue that permeates all aspects of the film. Seeing a summary of the plot of How to Train Your Dragon 2 one might assume the film is about a young man’s relationship with his mother. However, on further consideration How to Train Your Dragon 2 is really a film about a young man’s relationship with his father. No matter how pleasurable, how delicately dealt with, no matter how moving the relationship between Valka and Hiccup is, it really only functions as a way of elaborating on Hiccup’s relationship with Stoick. Hiccup finds his mother only to lose his father, the immediate closeness he feels towards his mother only serving to highlight the distance he has from his father. Hiccup’s speech as his father’s funeral boat burns behind him is particularly moving as it signifies Hiccup’s realisation (or admission) that he feared becoming his father not because he disliked his father, but because Hiccup feared he couldn’t live up to him. This is no less affecting, no less moving, no less true than the wonderful flying with mother sequence, but it positions the film in a well-trodden quasi-Freudian narrative vein that can only function with the exclusion of women. It’s the story of the child moving from the natural and pre-symbolic realm of the mother into the realm of the word, the father, and the law.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 dramatizes this very effectively. Hiccup takes after his mother and has an immediate rapport with Valka, whereas he is always at loggerheads with Stoick. The recognition of the father is something is something that has to be earned - it took the entire first film for Stoick and Hiccup to resolve their differences, and it is only in this film that Hiccup is able to accept his father’s values, and only then after Stoick’s death. If Valka represents freedom and Stoick responsibility, then they might also be mapped onto the all-to common binary of nature/culture, where woman is nature and man culture. Hiccup’s acceptance of responsibility, his inheritance of Stoick’s position is a move away from culture to the properly adult and masculine realm of civilisation and the law. As noted above, the film goes to great lengths to try to mitigate the apparent rejection of freedom that comes with taking up responsibility. While it is largely successful in this regard, the film does not go to the same lengths to reintegrate Valka into the story once her “function” is complete. As Robinson notes, even though Valka has supposedly been battling Drago successfully for some time, she’s reduced to little more than a damsel in need of rescuing. Astrid also suffers in this respect, going from the de facto leader of Berk’s dragon riders, planning the rescue mission and successfully escaping Drago’s clutches, to end film as Hiccup’s cheerleader. It also seems like a real missed opportunity for Valka and Astrid not to share a scene together. Beyond any considerations of the Bechdel test, I just want to know what those characters would say to each other! Surely a “crazy, feral, vigilante, dragon lady” would have something interesting to say to a talented, driven, funny, young dragon rider?

Of course, such a conversation wouldn’t necessarily advance Hiccup along in his hero’s journey, and this is essentially the problem. It’s not the film that’s wrong, or rather not only the film that’s wrong, it’s our stories. It’s a sad fact that our most common narrative structures are male centric narratives in which women function to inspire or reward men. It’s a structural problem, but then so is patriarchy. How can we tell a story where women are more than mere functions of the narrative if the only ways we can tell a story is by using women as mere functions. It’s a problem akin to trying to describe a red ball in a language that doesn’t have words for the concepts “red” or “spherical”. What we need is new a language of stories, one that does have equal space and possibilities for female and male characters. How to Train Your Dragon 2 does a wonderful job of exploring the tensions within stories, of playing them off against each other in new and interesting shapes. The How to Train Your Dragon franchise displays great fluency in the functions of stories, but sadly doesn’t take the extra step required to break out of those conventions.

<i>The Lego Movie</i>
The Lego Movie
I opened this article by questioning how one might write critically about How to Train to Your Dragon 2, and in light of what I’ve written I’d like to pose an alternative question: How should we watch How to Train Your Dragon 2? Are the limitations of the film enough to foreclose against enjoyment? I think not. There is much to love in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and I think we should always emphasise the positive when watching or critiquing any text. This isn’t to say that we should abandon any critical thoughts in order to enjoy the film, but rather that when watching films we should be equally attentive to the film’s pleasures and to its limitations. If one cares passionately about mainstream cinema, surely there is no other option? Cat Lester writes eloquently on how The Lego Movie is both a critical and complicit text - having its over-priced coffee and drinking in it in regards to its relation to capitalism and conformity. Watching mainstream cinema requires a dual perspective, a way of seeing that not only acknowledges contradiction, but embraces it. I say mainstream cinema, but I would hold that it is both naïve and idealistic to believe that there is some alternative “pure” cinema existing outside of ideology. There is no “outside” of the system. This does not, mean that there is no potential for change. At the risk of sounding too New Agey, change must come from within. I realise that I write from a privileged position, I’m a white middle-class, heterosexual, cis-gendered male and so there is less at stake for me. With a high degree of certainty, I can be sure of finding a character with which to identify on screen, and so adopting a dual perspective of enjoyment and critique is made all the easier for me by the ways in which the text invites me in. This also means that there is far greater chance of my complacency, and that I may well overemphasise pleasure at the expense of criticism.

But let us return to How to Train Your Dragon and consider how the film itself suggests this potential for change. As I’ve noted, the film is centrally concerned with the redefinition of binaries, and has a lead character committed to the belief that people can change. The film is also committed to guiding its audience towards understanding these concerns, not through moralising lectures or a modernist disruption of pleasure, but through the same spectacular devices that are the source of the film’s pleasures. On a side note, when Hiccup accepts the chief’s mark at the end of the film, the symbol has some resemblance to the astrological symbol for Pluto, connoting change. This is a suggestion, perhaps, that as the second film in a planned trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a transitional film, only one step in a larger project. We can look forward to How to Train Your Dragon 3 in anticipation, in the hope that it will explore those possibilities only hinted at in this film.

This Alternate Take was published on December 07, 2014.

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