Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a movie review.  For the benefit of those who may have started reading since my last one, a quick reminder.  I’m not interested in reviewing movies in terms of whether they’re good or not.  In this age of fragmented media consumption, it’s difficult for that word to have much meaning beyond the technical sense.  Whether I find a movie humorous or well-crafted is somewhat secondary.  I’m interested in what the movie has to say.  Not just in terms of the main plot line, but in the underlying assumptions and presuppositions that the characters and plot line move along.

Our kids were very excited to go and see this movie.  They were blessed with t-shirts and Happy Meal toys (thanks to my folks!) over the last few months, and just about wet themselves when they found out we were taking them to see it.  They  had a blast, and my eight-year old son was quite enthralled with the adventure and excitement of the dragons and chases and battles.  On this level, the movie is quite entertaining.
But two things struck me in watching this film, and it may involve some plot spoilers to talk about them.  I don’t think so, but it might, so just be forewarned.  The first was the film’s treatment of really the only female character, Astrid.  The second has to do with the interesting philosophy the film promotes towards the end as to man’s proper relationship with the world around us.
Those of you familiar with this blog know that I’m not a feminist.  Not in the traditional sense of the word, to be sure.  I’m a firm believer in equality between the sexes, but I also know that equality doesn’t not mean identicalness.  We are made to be equal, but each gender is gifted for different things, intended for different roles.  It’s our sinfulness that assigns greater or lesser importance to one role/gender over and against the other – something that we were warned about all the way back in Genesis 3.  
So this movie has only one real female character, Astrid.  A butt-kicking, resolute & determined Viking girl of probably 13 years.  We’re first introduced to her in exaggerated slow motion as she is back lit by an explosion and viewed through the protagonist, Hiccup, who is crushing on her.  Despite the sexualization of her in that sequence, it’s clear she’s a capable and brave girl.  But repeatedly throughout the movie, her skill and resolve is thwarted and ignored.  She competes against Hiccup (who, as the name might suggest, is something less than the typical, strapping Viking lad), but her hard work, practice, training, ability to overcome her own fear to face up to a task – these things are all ignored.  She loses the competition to Hiccup basically because he cheats.  
You’d think this would lead to a less than friendly relationship between the two, but no.  Instead, her indignation and frustration is almost instantly changed into adoration and love-sickness.  The rest of the movie doesn’t focus on her capabilities, but on her cheering on and encouraging Hiccup.  She makes the biggest impression when she uses her lips, rather than the rest of her skills combined.  
Don’t get me wrong – I think that it’s great for a woman to be encouraging a man instead of degrading him and minimizing him – something that often comes out in pop culture (Married with Children , for example).  But to start with a promising female character and reduce her to being able to smooch the hero into la-la land?  Kinda disappointing.  
Can you tell I have a daughter?
The other thing that sort of jumped out at me was the end of the film.  One of the underlying premises of the movie is that mankind has fundamentally misunderstood dragons.  They’re not really fierce and dangerous predators, they’ve just been forced into this role.  They’re really quite friendly.  All fine and good – I think this is really an interesting switcheroo.  If we just took time to understand these creatures and their issues, we’d see that we could really be on good terms with them.
To say the least.
Major spoiler ahead!!
The end of the movie sees the right relationship between mankind and dragons introduced.  Dragons are no longer feared enemies – and neither is mankind for that matter.  But rather than seeing these two different species living in a more equal relationship, the movie ends with dragons becoming pets.  These creatures that had been capable of vying against man to get what they needed from us are reduced to the docility of dogs on leashes.  The protagonist brags in his voice over about how the dragons are exactly that – the equivalent of ponies or dogs or other domesticated animals.  They’re now pets.  
The movie shows two sorts of natural interactions between mankind and the world around him.  One is a battle, the other is the aftermath of battle – subjugation.  You’re either against us or under us.  We don’t co-exist with the natural world, we either fight it to the bitter end or rule over it absolutely.  I’m no tree-hugger, but that seems like an awfully narrow set of options.
This film promulgates some of the worst stereotypes about men and their interactions.  It says If you’re a guy, you can win over the woman and the world.  Neither one is of much use as a partner, as something to be lived with in harmony.  They’re ultimately both there to be held sway over.  Benevolently, of course.  Let’s not be a dull brute about these things.  
I’d like to think that we can come up with a better message than that.  I’d like to think that we don’t have to have a romantic relationship in a children’s movie.  I’d like to think that, before kids reach the age where their hormones are running amok, they can be taught to value one another – regardless of gender – for who they are, not what they might possibly provide us.  I’d like to think that a culture obsessed with eco-equality and eco-consciousness could demand a movie that provides better options than all-out war or firm domination with or over nature.  
Perhaps we’ll see these things yet.  But not here.  Instead, laugh with your kids through the chase scenes.  Sigh at the requisite scenes of parental/child dysfunctionality and misunderstanding.  And keep thinking, and keep talking with your kids.  Hollywood isn’t going to teach them the way they ought to be in this world – the way they were created to be.  That’s your job, and my job.   And we’ve got our work cut out for us.  

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