Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dragons without dungeons, part I: Are you out of your Viking mind?


It really is one of the best animated films of the 21st century.  Which, I'll note, is a low bar to clear.

Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
Written by William Davies, Adam Goldberg, Chris Sanders, and Dean DeBlois (based on the book by Cressida Cowell)
With Jay Baurchel (Hiccup), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrara (Astrid), and Frank Welker (Toothless) (not really, but sound designer Randy Thom does a great job, doesn't he?)

Spoiler alert: severe

We all look back fondly on How to Train Your Dragon, even those of us who just watched it for the first time last week after impulsively blind-buying it thanks to a combination of being on-project again for the first time in three months, and hence bringing in an income, and the fact that 99.99999% of the human race as currently constituted thinks it is the single best Goddamned thing made for children in their lifetimes.  This is, of course, incorrect, since that is either Speed Racer or The Little Mermaid, depending upon when exactly they had the misfortune of entering an existence that has little to offer but the occasional cool movieStill, one can see where they're coming from.

By far the most purely pleasurable thing about Dragonand its sequelis the depiction of those dragons and their riders in flight.  This is to such a great extent the case that it is not only not clear that these films need to have traditional action-adventure narratives at all, it is not even clear that they would not be better if they didn't.  Because the second most purely pleasurable thing about either Dragon picture is watching our decreasingly-callow protagonist Hiccup and Toothless, the dragon he mutilated, then befriendedwell, that is what happenedjust play.

But they do have such narratives, so we'll just have to deal with them.

To begin on a complimentary note, there is a genuine sense of the mythic to the first Dragon's fable, and this is a strength it shares with few other animated films in the 21st century.  It's not based on any actual mythology, other than the characters' welcome invocations of their Nordic paganism (which do remain welcome, even if they are lazily achieved solely via a find-and-replace within the standard invocations of contemporary American Christianity).  But it's a story that could have been a real folktalethe just-so story of how dangerous beasts and humans came to live together, to work together, and to be loved by one another.

If the fable evokes authenticity, however, the ethnography doesn't.  Despite the Norse connection, the denizens of the island state of Berk aren't based on any real people except in the most cosmetic of waysand often not even cosmetically, given the unseen process by which Berk's young somehow acquire discomfiting Scottish accents with age.  This commitment to pastiche would put it in good stead with historically liberal but otherwise anodyne fantasies like Aladdin and Brother Bear, sacrificing accuracy for a stab at timelessness; however, Dragon has a high-pitched specificity about its setting that those movies avoided, and thus there's the whiff of a Pocahontas to it as well.

It could be borderline-offensive, but no one gets half as torqued up since Dragon's "Vikings" are a bunch of honkiesand rightly, since contemporary Viking issues are not a subject of serious controversy.  Still, for a picture focused exclusively upon our civilization's apparently default skin color, which usually gives its fictional bearers the opportunity to be atomized individuals, Dragon deliberately sidesteps the near-cultureless Caucasia of Tangled or Frozen or Sleeping Beauty or practically any other low fantasy I could name, and instead uses the narrative freedom of a politically-neutral lily-white cast to indulge in some of the single most ethnically essentialist storytelling one might ever seeif, anyway, one avoids media made in the Before Times.  Imagine, then, a version of Aladdin that takes a moment to have the hero explain to Carpet they're going on a death run against the most powerful force on Earth, "Because we're Arabsit's an occupational hazard."  On second thought, don't.  That's terrible and I'm sorry I brought it up.

But that's Dragon: positively enthusiastic to justify all manner of behavior in terms of a bowdlerized, semi-sanitized culture in a way that comes off as off-puttingly insistent at the same time it rings unequivocably false, partly because of the distinctly anachronistic speech patterns, and partly because they're emphatically not "Vikings," insofar as Vikings, you know, viked.

Sure, he looks harmless now, but you turn your back on him for one second, and he'll impose his rule upon northern France!

It's a little ironic, given that Berk's inhabitantsthese Vikings, if you mustare actually the targets of undomesticated raiders themselves, although that irony is lost given that those raiders are airborne, firebreathing monsters.  But, as we discover alongside young Hiccup (the clearly adopted son of Stoick, the chief, though everyone is still lying to him about this even in the sequel), these dragons, so hated by the Vikings, are not evil in themselves.  They only steal their livestock away in the night at the command of a queen dragon that has pressed them into service in order to feed her own vast appetites.  How exactly?  Fuck knows; the movie doesn't.  But obviously she must be stopped.

Hiccup is the first to ever befriend one of the beasts (this is not actually true), for he was the first that refused to kill a dragon when he could (this is also not actually true, and no one mentions it because the sequel wasn't written yet).  By luck, his compassion netted him a blood-brotherhood with one of the most powerful dragons of them all, a fearsome Night Fury; by premise, it turns out that, if this Night Fury is anything to go by, the dragons are as smart as five year-olds (I am convinced they comprehend human language), as loyal as dogs, and at least one of them is as cute as a tiger cub.  Hiccup must therefore convince his father that his genocidal urges were wrong, and he manfully does so through a demonstration of the martial superiority of his airpower that both saves the day and is visually spectacular.

The fight with the end boss is, indeed, legitimately great stuff, and goes a long way to explaining Dragon's reputation: because it is the best action sequence in an animated film in a very long while.

Hiccup even loses a leg in the process, but the injury is so scoffed off that it works solely as motif, an aesthetic button to bind Toothless and Hiccup's mirror-image relationship together (in case you didn't notice that they both have green eyesor in case you did notice that Toothless is not in any way, shape, or form a misunderstood outcast whom other dragons don't respect, which kind of subverts the whole thing).  It does not, however, work on the level of making me give a crap, which you would expect would be a level very hard to miss when it comes to the maiming of a likeable child protagonist.

All told, Dragon is conventional almost to a fault, with a yearning loser becoming an adult winner by way of the oldest dialectic there is, ultimately constructing a new synthesis between his own inner convictions and the traditions of the exoteric society, supplementing brute strength with intellect in order to achieve largely the same ends, which is to say physical and social domination, perhaps in a slightly more enlightened way, and maybe (or maybe not) learning the meaning of sacrifice in the process.

(This is a pretty good backbone to any action-adventure story, of course, which is why the balance of those stories use some version of it, while the other half either relegate the "becoming an adult" part to backstory, like the Indiana Jones pictures, or dispense with it entirely, featuring a soulless child with the urges of an adult fucking and killing things, often the very same things, which is why we like James Bond movies.)

The pleasant, progressive message about kindness to animals and treating nature as an entity with inherent moral value ultimately shades a bit too much into a tale of fantastic racism, thanks to the obvious intelligence of the dragonsand it's the brand of fantastic racism tales where the bigots realize not so much that their bigotry is intrinsically wrong, but that the targets of their hatred can do things for them, so should not be outrightly slaughtered.  It does not coexist flawlessly with the "Humans (Benignly) Conquer Nature" theme, since the eventual outcome is that the race of dragons is put under the yoke.  A comfortable yoke, to be sure, but I don't see Stoick giving them the vote.

Why does the black dragon gotta bewait, I did that joke already.

And the pleasant, progressive message about being able to accomplish all sorts of great things despite a disability isn't even a theme at all insofar as Hiccup is concerned, not even in the next film where you'd think it might be important.  It's so subdued that it only registers when you think of Toothless as a character in his own rightbut, this is actually fair enough, since he's pretty clearly the co-lead and I do like him more than any of the humans.

Oh, and there's also a girl, since there had to be, whose name is Astrid, as if it matters (and it doesn't).  Her secondary role is to test Hiccup's mettle as a potential mate and eventually wind up worse at everything than the hero, at which point she has no choice but to fall in love with him, and he, no recourse but to ignore how inutterably mean she previously was and how incompatible they still appear to be.

Not that I blame her entirely.  The animators apparently conceived of the teenagers as an entirely different primate species from the overstylized hulks that, despite the sample size of one seen above, do appear to constitute the overwhelming majority of Berk's population.  So Hiccup is one of the very few males on the island with whom Astrid might manage to complete the marriage act in the first place, and the other three look like they smell.

Astrid's primary role, however, is to serve as a prop to Hiccup's character in the film's single most unconventional scene, which is also its best non-flying, non-fighting scene.  Herein, Astrid has discovered Hiccup's secret project.

To set the scene: Hiccup's nursed Toothless back to health, and replaced the wing he took from him with a medieval prosthetic, learning how to tame all sorts of dragons in the process.  This has made him the best student in his dragon killer class.  Astrid has followed him to the valley where he acts out the title of the film.  (As a side note, before she becomes aware of the presence of his pet monster, Astrid verbally and physically abuses Hiccup out of jealousy.  This is clearly behavior that is appropriate, should be rewarded with his affections, and is not at all an incredibly insulting depiction of pettiness masquerading as a strong female character.  Astrid is by definition strong, after all, because she can beat the shit out of the male leadQ.E.D.  By the way, did I mention Dragon looks fucking amazing for a piece of CG animation rendered on vacuum tubes in 1955?)

The important part is their conversation over what to do about the dragon nest they've subsequently discovered, and one moment in particular.  It's entirely subtext, involving some of the better body language ever animated: suddenly tensed, Hiccup makes it clear enoughdespite his even tone of voicethat if Astrid so much as thinks about betraying Toothless to the other Vikings, he is going to have his Night Fury cut her down where she stands.

"Have I seen Astrid?  No, I haven't seen Astrid.  Who's Astrid?  Okay, bye now!"

I've so far only touched upon the film's minor issues.  There are two bigger ones.

The first is that 99% of the dragons actually featured in this movie about dragons range from kind of cool-looking but a little awkward (the one that's two-thirds of a Ghidorah; Astrid's raptor of many colors) to uninspired and a little lame (many of the rest) to embarrassing failures of design, made all the worse because you know it's deliberately bad (and, beyond obviously, I mean that hummingbird/hog thing).  Of the dragons thus far seen, only Toothless and the Queen are genuine triumphsbut, I'm happy to say, this is enough.

Before seeing the film, I wasn't sure about Toothless.  There was something about the friendly, rounded edges of his Oreo-shaped skull that struck me as ineffably wrong.  But, like with Jay Baruchel's nerdlinger lisp, it's an aesthetic choice that seems perfect once you witness the final product in motion.  It's a real masterpiece of design, permitting Toothless to go from impossibly precious to legitimately terrifying instantaneously, with but the very mildest of deforming animation.  I also like the cranial fins that make him look like he has eight ears.

Awww.  That's adorably grotesque.

The other big problem with Dragon is, a hundred minutes later, I had no idea how the ecosystem that produces these things functions, like, at all.  But it's best these complaints be saved for the sequel, when they truly go beyond the infinite.

If Dragon isn't an outright great movie, then it's only a hair's breadth away.  And if it's a great movie of any description, then it's in spite ofor is it because of?—its hidebound construction.  It's a classic Hero's Journey done mostly right, filled with beautiful imagery and anchored by a friendship that you'd have to be just about heartless not to be engaged by.  Meanwhile, John Powell's extraordinary, truly perfect score certainly doesn't hurt.

It's a very, very good movie, at the very least, something Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois have every right to be proud of, and one I don't at all regret laying down thirteen bones for.  So despite my issues, this is a favorable review.  Maybe you won't need to throw me out of the human race after allpretty please?

Score: 9/10

Other reviews in this series:
How to Train Your Dragon 2: He says "red" a lot during dragon training

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