This weekend, I went to see a movie. In a theater. I know, crazy.
It was one of the best films I have seen in awhile. It took on serious topics, but gently, subtly—How does a family go about putting itself together again, after a mother abandons her child? What makes a good leader: Do they protect their own, or do they export their values? Best of all (and this is why I can write this on The Bark Post), this film made wonderful, albeit sly, points about our treatment of, and often prejudice towards, dogs that are stereotyped as aggressive or dangerous.
I think you know what I’m talking about, folks. I’m talking about How To Train Your Dragon 2.
You’re still here? Wow. I’m surprised. Okay. Awesome. This also should be a good time to tell you that major spoilers are ahead. But surprises are sort of lame. I’d much rather have read intimate analysis of the implications of a film’s plot before I go see it in a theater. But, you know, to each his own.
First of all, I went to see this movie with two friends, neither of whom are ten years old. We are college students, and were actually big fans of the first movie, because of the wonderful animation of the main dragon, Toothless, and his owner, Hiccup, both of whom are hopelessly endearing. In normal circumstances we do not make a habit of seeing children’s movies. Except Frozen. Because Frozen.
Regardless, when I went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, I did not expect to see a love letter to shelter dogs and the owners who rescue them. But that’s exactly what happened.
At the close of the first film, the main character, Hiccup, has learned how to train, and love, creatures that were deemed dangerous and inherently evil by his friends and family. At the opening of the sequel, these dragons have become citizens of Berk (a precarious Scandinavian coastal village, a la the Vikings) and have helped save the village from its insular and aggressive impulses. Berkians used to manufacture only weapons; now, they make artisan saddles for different dragon breeds.
First, when you see the movie, it is clear that these dragons are essentially fire-breathing, flying dogs. They fetch. They lick their owner’s faces. Each citizen of Berk keeps a dragon as their own, like a pet. They train them to do tricks, and love them like members of the family. Director Dean DeBlois has gone so far as to say they animated the dragons to have mannerisms like dogs, so that they would appear more familiar, and more lovable, to audiences.
But the film goes farther. Many of the characters have had bad experiences with dragons–the villian, Drago, seeks to build an army of dragons, to conquer them and cage them, partially because he lost his left arm to a dragon bite. The citizens of Berk have had villages burned, families torn apart, by dragons, before they learned to train them. In the most heart wrenching scene in the film, Hiccup’s beloved Toothless, his mind under Drago’s control, accidentally kills Stoick, Hiccup’s father.
And yet, despite the inexplicable horror that Toothless has committed, Hiccup loses faith in him for only an instant. “Dragons are only as bad as the people who control them,” Hiccup’s mother says to him. The scene raises an important question: Can we separate an animal’s nature from what they’re trained to do, by humans? Can we understand that an animal that is compelled to do something terrible is not, at its core, a terrible being?
We have all heard both sides of this argument, about aggressive dogs. Many who are reading this, I’m sure, will have had the terrifying experience of being the victim of an attack from a dog who has been trained to treat human strangers as enemies. Many others will have seen that same dog move into the shelter system, and tried to save its life.
What How To Train Your Dragon 2 does so beautifully is that it teaches that animals, like humans, can make horrible mistakes–but if you treat them with love and respect, they will give the same back to you. And despite the fact that these are dragons, and not dogs, I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw your own relationship with your pup reflected in the love that Hiccup and Toothless share.
In a well-placed twist at the end, Drago’s old dragon trapper, Eret, the redeemed former enemy in the film, is given Stoick’s pet dragon. Proof positive that dogs don’t only reflect the natures of the humans who love them, teach them, and respect them; they dare us to forgive others, and to accept what we cannot control, and to love unconditionally. By nature, they dare us to be better people.