I’m pleased to offer a guest post from Jon Crutchfield, a graduate student in HBU’s MA in Apologetics program. He wrote this review as part of his work for his “Film, the Visual Arts, and Apologetics” class with Dr Evan Getz. Enjoy! — Holly Ordway
Sometimes It Takes A Kid’s Movie to Speak To An Adult
There is much to learn from children’s movies. How many of us have been surprised to find ourselves in the theater with our children tearing up at the drama being played out before us by animated toys or cartoon animals? Sometimes when all of the unnecessary adult situations and the latent (and sometimes not so latent) sexuality are stripped away so that a film can appeal and be appropriate for a child, the message being portrayed comes through at a much more rudimental level. This is what I experienced in the movie, How To Train Your Dragon 2, sitting there next to my 7 year old with tears streaming down my face. At this point I hear all the adults groaning. A children’s fantasy and a sequel at that… how could that be anything other than Hollywood’s typical MO of “let’s take a popular movie and milk it for all the money that we can get out of it with sequels and action figures and cartoon network series”. However, if you give it a chance, there is a beautiful story here with many powerful elements. There is the validation of family through the reconciliation of a marriage; there is redemption and salvation through self-sacrifice; and there is the recognition of the fact that life is not all about one’s self and one’s own desires.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 picks up the story of Hiccup as a young man now in his twenties. This movie is decidedly darker and more mature than the first movie. Whereas the first film was dedicated to the idea of gaining acceptance in a community that is hostile, the sequel addresses the issue of finding ones purpose. It is clear that all the characters have grown older; faces have changed and have lost some of their childishness, although there is still enough of the silliness to appeal to young kids. In addition to this atmosphere of maturing, the visuals have become even grander than the first movie. While the first movie centered on relatively few locations, the sequel spreads out and gives a more realistic sense of the immensity of the world. The ideas presented in an isolated scenario now encompass a worldview.
Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed dramatically. It seems that all is now right with the world. Rather than being the menace they were perceived to be in the first movie, dragons are now fully integrated into the life of the villagers and have helped the village to prosper. But while everyone else seems to be content with this new situation, Hiccup is restless and begins to isolate himself from everyone; spending a great deal of his time exploring with his dragon Toothless and ducking the attempts of his father to prepare him for becoming his successor as leader of the village. We see a kind of selfishness here in Hiccup that is all too prominent in the youth of today. There seems to be an idea here that one must find fulfillment in some kind of cause or purpose over and above relationship. This idea is reflected in Hiccup’s mother, Valhallaramma, whom we meet in this film. We discover that she abandoned her life with her family in order to live with dragons and to save them. Although she claims that she stayed away in order to keep her family safe, the truth is that her cause became more important to her than having a relationship with her family.
Contrasted to this is Hiccup’s father, Stoic. He is portrayed happily dealing with the mundane issues of village life. His motto is “a man takes care of his own.” Although Stoic is a changed man from our first encounter him in the first movie, we still see that streak of stubbornness in his unwillingness to support his son’s idea of making peace with the movie’s antagonist, Drago Bloodfist, a man who is raising a dragon army to take over the world. In a similar fashion to the first movie, Hiccup defies the wishes of his father and goes his own way. There has been some negative commentary on the portrayal of reward coming to Hiccup for disobeying his father, but in this instance I don’t see a problem. As Hiccup is now an adult it is necessary for him to make his own decisions and face up to their consequences. Hiccup’s desire to be a peacemaker should be emphasized and praised. In much the same way, the age-group that Hiccup represents is often disparaged for laziness and self-absorption. While the apparent flaws of today’s youth may have be based in reality, it is also important to recognize and praise their good qualities as well.
The turning point in the movie is the scene in which Stoic and Valhallarama come face to face for the first time in 20 years. One might expect to see a dramatic confrontation with accusations thrown from both sides. In fact, that is certainly what Valhallarama expected as she backs away from the advancing Stoic all the while pleading excuses and cringing away from the wrath she knows that she deserves. But Stoic does not reproach his wife at all. All he can say is “you’re as beautiful as the day I lost ye.” This moment is a beautiful picture of grace and love. The scene takes place not out in the open but deep in a cave. The light and music are soft and there is a womblike feeling of intimacy that lends to the sense that this moment is of great import. In several of the following scenes in which Stoic is attempting to re-establish a connection with his estranged wife, we see Hiccup watching his father with a growing respect in his eyes. We never see a moment of accusation from Stoic towards his wife. His examples of self-sacrifice and forgiveness become highly influential to Hiccup’s quest to find his purpose in life.
Self-sacrifice ultimately becomes the theme of the entire movie. Throughout the movie, there are multiple instances of characters being saved by the intervention or sacrifice of another. This is following a recent trend in some of the more popular kid’s movies, like Frozen, where Anna makes the ultimate sacrifice for her sister Elsa. However, while Frozen’s message of self-sacrifice is too often usurped by the selfish self-empowerment theme of “Let it Go,” that same confusion does not exist in How to Train Your Dragon 2. The foibles of Hiccup and Valhallaramma are realistic, easily identifiable as common everyday experiences. It’s refreshing to see that their foibles are not celebrated as heroic acts of independence from relationship. Rather, definite growth is portrayed in their characters as a result of their self-sacrifice and the undeserved grace they received. For these reasons I can happily say that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the best animated film…, heck, one of the best films period I have seen come out of Hollywood in years.
Jon Crutchfield is a graduate student in the MA in Apologetics program at Houston Baptist University.