Friday, March 22, 2019

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World of Good Animated Sequels


© Dreamworks

I wasn’t originally planning to write about How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the obligatory third part to the crown jewel and prime money-maker of DreamWorks Animation. Then I remembered that this series has been butting its head into the Files since the beginnings of both, and so the completionist in me feels obligated to assess the final one, not only for the benefit of DreamWorks, who have 90% of critics telling them they can do no wrong, but also for my own as a maturing writer and critic.

As with many threequels that are too eager to placate fans with inflated expectations, Dragon 3 talks about twice as often as the original and communicates nary half as much. More than just a disappointing cash grab, it stands as a microcosmic case study of all the forces that have been degrading Hollywood entertainment over the last decade, one that retroactively augmented my esteem for the flawed second film.

The plot of the film resembles a shambling re-animation of two long-deceased kiddie movie frameworks, viz. the forced migration from a no longer habitable home (Dinosaur, The Land Before Time, Ice Age 2, et al.) and the conniving dog napper, here re-purposed into a comically gaunt and Nordic hunter whose raison ’d’ĂȘtre is to exterminate all of dragonkind. When Hiccup rightly impugns his bad guy principles by pointing out that Nosferatu himself commands an army of “Deathgripper” dragons—the better to chase our heroes and create spectacle, my dear—the villain laughs the accusation off, asserting that those aren’t “real dragons” because he drugs them into obedience with their own venom. Checkmate, YouTube critics. No inconsistencies or plot holes to see here. This still doesn’t make Max Von Pseudow an interesting or empathetic figure, certainly not with an affected Transylvanian voice supplied by F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning Salieri of Amadeus.

As I recall How to Train Your Dragon 2, the overarching writing credo of that film was to take the message and characters of Dragon and flip them inside out. Whereas the first movie reveres Hiccup for defying the will of Chief Stoick and acting brashly in defense of what he believes to be right, the second movie reprimands him for his filial impiety and air-headed millennial hubris. In 2014, I didn’t take fondly to this twist because it seemed to come at the contrived expense of Hiccup, a young man who’d demonstrated a certain composure and critical outlook. Having now seen the full trajectory of the series, I can commend the second installment for having the gumption to do anything with the main character—integrity be damned.

Hiccup’s principal motive in Dragon was to effect peace between the Vikings and the dragons, while in Dragon 2 it was to avert an imminent war between Berk and a barbaric chieftain, whom he mistakenly believes will be privy to negotiation. Both of these drives speak to a deeper value in his character and are ripe for both personal and political exploration. In Dragon 3, Hiccup is moved to find a new home for the dragons because Berk has simply gotten too crowded. Along this journey, he tries to set Toothless up with a female night fury by pure coincidence and at no discernible cost to himself, while other thankless characters like his mother urge him to join the unconditionally supportive Astrid in marriage, a union he doesn’t protest at any point. These threads make for a stunningly inert narrative wherein neither Hiccup, nor his mannequin of a girlfriend, nor the unrelatable paleface antagonist undergo any development or have to make hard decisions.

Remember how Disney shills insecure in their admiration of a children’s movie played up the angle that Toy Story 3 was intended more for adults than the kiddos: that Pixar was deliberately catering to college students who grew up with the VHS tapes or Gen X dads moved to tears by dredged-up childhood memories? DreamWorks landed themselves in a similarly opportune moment with this franchise, which has charted such familiar domains of adolescent development as first crushes, death in the family, and assuming responsibility for people besides oneself. The Hidden World should have been the chapter where Hiccup and Astrid, if not consummate their love on a fur pelt in a vivid anime interpolation, at least have a stern, mature conversation about his roommate Toothless and whether it’s time for the best friends to separate and start their own families. Instead of advancing the nuanced human relationships that arguably pushed Dragon to the top of the DreamWorks pyramid, writer-director Dean DeBlois took the easy route and focused on a nonverbal mating game between two adorable, wide-eyed fairy tale creatures. It appears the easy route might have reaped the greatest spoils, as trailers emphasizing the meet-cute of Toothless and the girl dragon helped Dragon 3 capture the best opening weekend of the trilogy.

Granting this is a trivial cartoon made for children with no insight to proffer on the human condition, can The Hidden World get any credit for the dragons? The first movie achieved a fine balance of making the Vikings’ nemeses colorful and loveable but also nonhuman and dangerous. One could understand why the warriors dreaded the beasts even while rooting for Hiccup to show them the error of their ways. By the time we get to Dragon 3, commercial interests have swallowed any mythical grandeur, physicality, or distinctive traits left to the dragons, reducing them to a throng of loveable doglike pets ready to be peddled as plush toys and action figures. Toothless gets to keep some smidgeon of personality, but he himself suffers an anthropomorphic makeover, no longer believable as a legendary king among monsters.

A lot of people have lauded the animation work in Dragon 3, the lowest-budgeted entry, as the best in the series, in large part because Toothless draws a picture in a sand bank that looks exactly like real sand. If higher polygon counts or more realistic hair and grass are someone’s main metric of good animation, then I wouldn’t know how to convince such a person that Dragon’s animation has visibly soured over the years. When Incredibles 2 came out, some critics seized the occasion to note how far CGI has advanced since the comparatively rudimentary Incredibles; how long will it take popular consensus to grow disenchanted with the computer graphics in DreamWorks’ grand finale? Preoccupation with 3D animation “detail” or “realism” seems a uniquely American foible. Films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Princess Mononoke look just as impressive today as they did in the ’90s, having put most of their chips in technology that isn’t aging rapidly. Even the first Dragon can lord its darker, more intricate lighting and shadows over The Hidden World, which continues to repaint the world with a sunny, candy-colored palette more reflective of competing cartoons.

Cuteness trumps narrative functionality or theme, and scenes that are primarily dramatic feel like a welcome reprieve from the “comic relief”. I said that Dragon 3 talks a lot more than the original, which has many scenes of intentionally sparse or absent dialogue where Hiccup gradually earns the trust of Toothless. Somewhere along the marketing research treadmill, DreamWorks or DeBlois got the message that audiences liked the hilarious interactions between Snotlout, Fishlegs, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut, who barely figured into the first film but I imagine have a sizeable role in the Netflix series. I would venture that these characters have twice as many lines collectively as they had in 2, not one of them being funny or instrumental to the film. In a rather characteristic scene, Tuffnut advises the peg-legged Hiccup to “lose the limp” because “no one’s going to marry that”. When Hiccup informs him that his gait stems from a physical disability, Tuffnut says something witty like, “And I’ve got a parasitic twin, but you don’t see me limping around about it!”

So goes the humor in the third part of a critically-acclaimed animated franchise. AFOD’s (adult fans of Dragon) used to be able to tune out these minor characters, as their idiocy was incidental to the plot. In Hidden World, their mishaps—a brother abandoning his sister in battle because they hate each other; said sister assuming the bad guy let her go with no intention of secretly following her—are actually integral to it.

Somewhere over the course of watching the movie and mentally drifting off from boredom, it occurred to me that there has never been a truly good animated sequel in the West, and DreamWorks’ series makes it blaringly apparent why. As a new IP that early adopters had no guarantee would satisfy them, How to Train Your Dragon had the luxury of being able to make risky choices concerning its characters, choices that endowed their actions with moral significance. In the DVD commentary track, the creators talk about the positive reaction at test screenings to Hiccup’s amputation at the end; one child appreciated that the protagonist “lost something, but he gained so much more”. The Hidden World doesn’t have the same benefit because the filmmakers have to skirt around inflicting terror upon children, who are conditioned by witless media outlets and a consumerist culture to “identify” with or “look up to” unattainable fantasy characters. How can a director like Deblois sleep knowing that he may have corrupted, maimed, or misrepresented a figure who brings joy to millions of people? It’s easier just to do nothing with him.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup’s courage and commitment to Berk cost him a limb. In Dragon 2, his arrogance cost him his father, even if Stoick’s death didn’t loom over the film to a great extent. In Dragon 3, Hiccup tries to sacrifice his own life to save Toothless, but ten seconds later the movie saves them both miraculously anyway, Last Jedi-style. Some days later, Hiccup marries Astrid and says a final goodbye to Toothless, himself involved in a serious relationship with the girl dragon. Here the movie could have ended on a beautiful callback to the first film’s training scene, signifying that our friendships irrevocably change and bless us even when our friends must journey elsewhere, never to see us again.

The Hidden World, however, is too coy to end on such a poetic note, or to suggest that the hero’s best friend could actually be his wife. Instead we get a manipulative, happy-go-lucky epilogue in which a bearded Hiccup and his offspring reunite with Toothless and his offspring and they all go flying together above the clouds while John Powell’s theme music swells. Nothing ventured, nothing, for me at least, gained.

The CGI was good, though, so I’ll give it an A-, slightly below what I gave Captain Marvel, which is also decent and entertaining despite its slight deficiencies in comedy, drama, romance, action, suspense, acting, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup, and shot composition. Please support these films.