Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Drastically Unusual Nature of HTTYD2

So, it’s been a while since I’ve done a full blown analysis post on HTTYD or HTTYD2, but I hope to make up for it with this one! I’ve wanted to write it ever since 2014, but I’ve always been too intimidated or too busy. In this post, I want to talk about to mold-breaking nature of the HTTYD movies, particularly in their “teen vs parent” theme. I think the How To Train Your Dragon franchise has actually pulled off something that most other animated movies treat in a very one-dimensional, almost naive fashion. So, let’s hit this thing running!

First of all, HTTYD1 is a notably archetypical film. It takes a bunch of common tropes and executes them extremely well. That is not to say it is unoriginal, it just uses some fairly common plot devices. One of the most notable story tropes is the aforementioned “teen vs parent” dynamic. We see it EVERYWHERE. Whether it is Brave, Tangled, or Moana… there are tons of animated films that fall into this plot. You have a parental figure with strict rules and some sort of worldview that is widely accepted as being “for the best”. Then you get the spunky, brainy, free thinking teenager who questions this dogma. At first the parents are completely opposed to this rebellious, drastic idea, but by the end of the film they usually come to see that the teen was right. Sometimes this is handled well (such as in HTTYD and Moana imo), but at other times it feels really tired and cookie-cutter-ish. It also feels unrealistic. “Of course the teenager with no life experience is gonna be in the right in every single instance! I mean, look at how stupid adults are! How could they every get anything right?!” Now, I’m not saying the parents should always be in the right, but is it really feasible that they would ALWAYS be wrong? Is every established worldview and rule an obstacle that needs to be torn down by a rising, free thinking hero? In my view, I’d say it is far more complicated. No, parents are not always in the right, but why is it that we almost NEVER see the rising hero be wrong? Why does their naivety and inexperience never come back to bite them? Why do they always wind up being in correct, while the older generation is always in the wrong? 

I’m sure you can see where this is going. HTTYD1 follows this trope pretty well. Though, it does not make Stoick or his view out to be ungrounded or foolish. After all, he was protecting his people, and the dragons were not going to stop their raids until the Red Death was dealt with. However, in the end, Hiccup is shown to be right, dragons are shown to not be heartless, mindless killers, and the entire culture of Berk is re-written. We also get a wonderful moment in which both Hiccup and Stoick admit that they have been wrong, and that they are sorry. It’s a balanced plot, and I think it manages to steer clear of many of the pitfalls that “teen vs parent” plots often fall into. 

However, HTTYD2 tells a totally different story. It adds a layer of complexity to the HTTYD narrative that I LOVE. Hiccup is a wonderful character, but he is shown to still be growing. He doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be, but he thinks his father is wrong about him being the next chief, and he thinks his father is wrong about speaking to Drago. In both cases, at least to some degree, Hiccup is in the wrong and his father is in the right. I don’t know what Hiccup should have done with Drago, but his dogmatic desire to handle the problem by reasoning with his enemy resulted in a situation that ended in the death of his father. Then, at the end of the film, Hiccup decides to grow into the person his father wanted. He doesn’t become a world explorer. He doesn’t even primarily become a peace keeper. He becomes a chief, someone who will protect his people. I for one, think this is a very counter-cultural and well thought out plot! I mean, I felt sure that Hiccup would “follow his dreams” or “listen to his heart”. But, instead, he takes up a mantle of great responsibility. He wants to be like his father, he wants to try to fill those shoes, even though he feels inadequate. It’s not your normal animated ending, and it certainly adds a real dynamic of moral complexity. There is no 100% right path. There is no obviously “right” person. Hiccup is not always right, but neither are his parents. This leaves the audience actually having to try and weigh the decisions of the characters. It leaves us wondering what we would have done, and more than that, what we should do in the similar situations of our lives. Have we written off the advice of our parents and friends and seen ourselves as the rising, revolutionary heroes of our own stories? Perhaps we have, but is that wrong, or is it right? That isn’t determined by how we feel! It’s determined by the reality around us… the actual situations and the actual consequences. So, just as we must weigh the decisions and costs of Hiccup’s actions, we should weigh what we are doing. Let’s not be blind to the advice or rules of those who care for us, but let’s also not just assume that because something is old or new that it is right.

So, yeah, this is one of the biggest reasons why I loved HTTYD2! It was so different from your normal “kid” movie. It asks you to actually think about the costs of decisions. It isn’t a clear cut right and wrong. The child isn’t always right by nature of being young… or even by nature of being the hero! I’m certainly not downing the first plot, but I’m very thankful for the second… because it broke the mold we felt so comfortable with and made this story feel genuine, real, and mature. 

I just can’t wait to see the (potentially agonizing) decisions that will be made in the third film! World views are sure to clash, and Hiccup and Toothless will be challenged to their very cores! 

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