About a third of the way through How to Train Your Dragon 2, there’s a curious exchange between audience-surrogate Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his domineering papa Stoick (Gerard Butler). The two are arguing over the picture’s villain (the aptly named Drago Bludvist [Bloodfist]) and how to deal with his – Drago’s – crusade to enslave all the dragons and annihilate the world. Hiccup passionately implores his father for some sort of civil discourse. He argues that if they could only talk to Drago then they could reason with him. Minds can be swayed, hearts changed Hiccup pleads. But Stoick isn’t having it. Some men cannot be reasoned with, some hearts cannot be changed. War is inevitable.
One would assume an animated big-studio children’s sequel to reinforce Hiccup’s we-are-the-world, utopic posturing. In the first How to Train Your Dragon, that most certainly is the case. In that film, Hiccup is basically infallible — he’s the only one to realize dragons aren’t the enemy, that they’re compassionate intelligent creatures, that man can peacefully coexist alongside them. He single handedly changes centuries of preconceived thought and law. By the end, even the adamantly anti-dragon Stoick comes to realize the error of his ways and accept the creatures as something other than an other.
So the set-up is there for the sequel to copy its predecessor’s narrative arc. Hiccup will teach his father that through reason and civil discourse war can be averted without any loss of life. Our hero will be proven true and the ‘enemy’ converted over to the correct ideology.
…And then Stoick gets blasted to death by Hiccup’s own dragon all because his son mistakenly thought he could talk the villain down. It’s in this moment that How to Train Your Dragon 2, underneath its lovely pop colored aesthetics and beautiful 3D visages, reveals its true cynical heart. Because this is a movie that ultimately sides not with ‘our’ hero Hiccup, but with Stoick’s conservative credos.
Some people, the film posits, really are just evil and there’s nothing anybody can do or say to change their minds. Reason does not win out in How to Train Your Dragon 2. Reason costs Stoick his life. Hiccup is only able to defeat Drago Bludvist by abandoning his idealistic pleas, bombing the villain repeatedly (via dragons) and pushing him back into the foreign land from which he came. Violence is presented as the only solution.
In a post-film Q&A last night, actor Djimon Hounsou was asked about his motivation when approaching the villainous Drago. Hounsou replied simply, “His only [interest] is to indoctrinate mankind.” The response gets to the heart of what Drago represents: the first DreamWorks Animation depiction of terrorism. For much of the movie, Drago is an abstract – a villain far removed from the actual action on screen. People talk of him in hushed tones and vague threats. “He’s a madman without conscience or mercy,” Stoick at one point warns. Drago in the first half of the film is less a person than a figure-head, a looming threat — much in the same way Al-Qaeda or ISIS are often depicted in media as an all-encompassing distant evil.
When Drago does finally appear – this “stranger from a strange land” stands out in stark contrast from our white Viking heroes. He’s of vaguely Middle Eastern-descent, covered in scars, his hair curled into wild dreadlocks — his exoticism marking him not only as an other but more so – a threat.
Drago has an uneasy ability to captivate and control the minds of other exotics (i.e. dragons) and bend them to his will. Under Drago’s orders, the dragons become a destructive force, blowing up towns and murdering hard-nosed fathers. But the film is quick to note that the dragons aren’t to blame for their actions. “Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things”, the sage Valka (Cate Blanchett) lectures Hiccup and by proxy the audience. The notion here is that the foot soldiers of Drago’s unconditional evil – the ones bombing towns and murdering the innocent – are not to blame for their actions. They don’t know any better; they’ve been indoctrinated to hate and destroy. Ostensibly the dragons here are a stand-in for the suicide bombers and masked assassins who carry out the evils of the world in the name of zealotry. Indoctrination is marked as the true weapon of terror, the ability to brainwash civil ordinary people dragons into monstrous killers a precursor to unimaginable atrocity.
By the end of How to Train Your Dragon 2, it is Hiccup who has changed – abandoning his non-violent stance in favor of rah-rah aggression. War can no longer be averted through fancy words and logic; it is force that will win out. “Those who attacked us are relentless and crazy,” Hiccup bellows in the closing voice over “…We may be small in numbers but we stand for something bigger than anything the world can pin against us. We are the voice of peace and bit-by-bit we will change this world… Oh sure — they have armies and they have armadas but we have our dragons!” Hiccup’s closing speech is essentially a rally-cry for violent opposition in the name of peace, the uneasy dichotomy of achieving a utopia through the threat of dragons blowing up everybody that stands in the way – perhaps the single most insidiously cynical ending ever to a children’s animated feature.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 ultimately paints a fairly black-and-white view of global terrorism. There are those who are good (Hiccup) and those who aren’t (Drago) – and nothing can change either ends of that spectrum. Only through the threat and implementation of force can the good ever overcome the bad – a chilling message for a film seemingly ‘about’ cute big-eyed animated dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is currently available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray everywhere. On February 22nd, it will more than likely win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.