austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

There's too much on my mind

Some thoughts about How To Train Your Dragon since I did watch it and should think about it sometime:

There's much to like in the movie, and I do. The background is it's a little Viking city plagued by dragons, and young protagonist Hiccup is a mechanically-minded klutz who accidentally catches one. Too tender-hearted to kill the animal, he keeps it a secret, builds a mechanical tail fin to replace its lost one, and uses what he learns from ``Toothless'' to totally ace dragon-slaying classes.

I can't say the characters feel like they're authentically Viking, but that's all right; the background is played mostly for comedy which mostly works. And the heart of the plot is strongly an ``engineering'' story, Hiccup learning what works and what doesn't work about the tail fin, and how to fly, and how to treat dragons, and boy do I like stories where the hero figures things out and shows he's clever by discovering stuff. Just the sequence of improved tail replacements evokes, subtly, the grand montages which made the ``Spider'' episode of From The Earth To The Moon so delightful.

Anyway, through his dragon studies Hiccup discovers, according to the trailers, that ``everything we know [ about the dragons ] is wrong''. See, they think the dragons are just this scourge which keeps preying upon their village, making off with their food stuffs and generally not destroying too much at one time for the Vikings to not rebuild and keep going. But in reality the dragons are ... routinely preying upon the village and making off with their food stuff because they're in thrall to a super-giant monster dragon overlord who must be fed. I suppose there's some difference in the dragons' moral agency here, but it's never quite clear that the dragons are intelligent enough to have moral agency, and from the Viking perspective I'm not sure the difference could matter.

And it's with the discovery of the overlord that the story background starts to really gnaw at me. Hiccup and his girlfriend, Girlfriend (I'm sure she has a name, but it's not her movie) compare the dragons to a bee colony, reminding me of classic SCTV sketch Vikings and Beekeepers, which was not apparently in the mind of the movie producers. But then that leaves me confused about the ecology of the dragons, as posited: Queen Bees get to demand the ``service'' of the many bees in the hive in exchange for a considerable labor on the hive's behalf. What does the Queen Dragon do, besides be really enormous and threaten those who deliver inadequate foods to it? In a slightly different perspective, feudal lords (when feudalism more or less worked) didn't just command the labor of their serfs; they also were supposed to protect the serfs from peril.

If the Queen Dragon gives anything back to the servant dragons, though, it's not clear what. Perhaps it's supposed to just hold the servant dragons in fear of what it might do, since it is bigger and tougher than all the dominated ones; but in that case ... it's enormously outnumbered, for one thing, and it's not clear that it can even leave the lair it's in until late in the movie when the lair is broken open by stupid Vikings (who somehow shatter open the mountainside by hurling rocks at it). Toothless is able to make its way off and vanish for weeks without the Queen Dragon going off looking for it; why haven't most of the dragons left for less oppressive climes, then? It suggests the Queen Dragon serves some biological need, which makes her destruction by the end of the movie, well, something we're supposed to be happy about but maybe it answers the implicit question of why there aren't dragons around today.

Anyway, trusting that the ecology issues have some resolution too elaborate for the movie to explain, there's still something of a plot problem. Most of the movie shows Hiccup finding he's not able emotionally to kill a dragon, at least not one that isn't immediately threatening anyone. And he uses it to discover all sorts of dragon-handling secrets that none of the Vikings who've been there for centuries have discovered. (Mostly it turns out dragons are actually flying cats, as they love fish, being scritched on the chin, chase spots of light, and roll around in dragon-nip.) Very good. After establishing that Hiccup does not want to kill, and has learned all sorts of ways to control dragons without killing them, he then confronts the Queen Dragon by, if we follow the plot threads given the movie at length, trapping and maybe training her.

Well, no; what he does is team up with the rest of the Viking Pern Kids Crew to kill the Queen Dragon. Yeah, the threat is bigger and more personal --- he makes his grand declaration of not wanting to kill dragons at the climax of his dragon-killing class; the Queen Dragon is threatening his father and much of the village --- but, boy, a moral stance is made stronger the tougher the situation you stick with it through. The plot gave enough basis to think he could tame the Queen Dragon; why does he have to kill it other than if we don't kill something how will people know the movie is over? See my Alice in Wonderland comments about taking the moral of your movie and shooting it in the foot.

And yet there's stuff I liked about the climax even despite not wanting that particular climax. One big piece of that is that, as a result of the fight, Hiccup loses about half his leg, and he ends the movie learning to walk on a suspiciously sophisticated artificial replacement. When's the last time you saw a movie --- particularly a children's movie --- where the protagonist loses a limb at all, much less loses it and doesn't have it be a movie about Learning To Value Yourself As A Person Again? (Yes, Craig Ferguson's character lost an arm and leg in backstory, but he's not the protagonist, just a steady presence to like on-screen.) And it adds a pleasing narrative symmetry to Hiccup helping Toothless learn to fly, to conclude with a few but well-set scenes of Toothless helping Hiccup to walk.

Still, for all that I liked that aspect of the closing, once again I found I liked the movie but wanted the last fifteen minutes rewritten into something in harmony with what went before.

Trivia: The Soviet decision to label Yuri Gagarin's flight as ``Vostok'' (the project's secret name) in the open media, rather than simply listing it as the next of the Korabl-Sputnik flights, was proposed and argued winningly for in camera by spacecraft designer Mikhail Klavdiyevich Tikhonravov. Source: Challenge To Apollo: The Soviet Union And The Space Race, 1945 - 1974, Asif A Siddiqi.

Currently Reading: The 1983 Annual World's Best SF, Editor Donald A Wollheim.


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