This past Friday, I saw How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World with my children. I think I may have been to the movie theater three or four times, tops, with my children (the oldest is nine), and I only went to this one on a whim because of this discussion in Sanityville. The first movie in this series is one of the few that we own as a family, so my children have seen it a lot. I only have a vague memory of the second movie, and my memory is that I didn’t like it very much.
Overall, I think that the third installment of this series held true to the first one in tone and substance. So if you like the first one, you’ll probably like this one. However, I don’t think #3 is nearly as good as the first, and in the end I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.
Manhood and Womanhood
What does it mean for Hiccup to become a man and lead the tribe in the footsteps of his father? A lot of the tension in the series is created by Hiccup leading in a way that is not “the viking way.” He is a scrawny guy, and so he uses his ingenuity to outsmart and beat his opponents rather than brute strength like his father. But he does show real leadership and manliness in the first and third movies, even though it is halting and fearful at times. This is all to the good, and the way the relationship between father and son in the first movie resolves is what makes that movie.
What does it look like for Astrid to be the “leading lady”? Does she repeatedly demonstrate that Hiccup is an incompetent idiot, or is she a helpmate? While Astrid is a “warrior woman,” and despite her competing with Hiccup in their training in the first movie, I think she ends up being quite feminine and deferential towards Hiccup. The third movie captures this more clearly than the first. My favorite part of the third movie was the wedding and the children we see in a later scene. It’s very sweet.
Similarly, Hiccup’s mother is clearly a very competent lady, but she is also deferential towards her son. She gives him her advice, but defers to him as the leader of the tribe. Again, I thought it was sweet.
The three friends are there mostly for comic relief, and I thought they were tolerably good in the first movie. In the third movie, their gags are especially bad, unfortunately. There is a kind of sexual ambiguity with Ruffnut and Tuffnut that I think is intentional. It’s more pronounced in the third movie, and the third movie is worse off for it.
Man and Creation
A major part of the plot of the first movie is the discovery by Hiccup that dragons can be trained and befriended, and that they shouldn’t simply be killed. This made me nervous. I thought I was going to be berated for ever thinking that dragons were evil. I was sure that we’d be taught that, actually, humans are the problem, and that dragons are simply the victims of human oppression.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Instead, Hiccup befriends and trains a dragon much like a man might train a horse, and then the two of them go into battle together to defeat a worse dragon. The movie ends with a shot of the city filled with dragons that have been trained to do useful things for the people who live there. This is a twist on how we view dragons, to be sure, but it doesn’t fundamentally subvert the order between man and creation.
The third movie is more ambiguous on this point and therefore worse, unfortunately. The villan in the third movie also uses dragons for his purposes, but he drugs them so that they will obey him. His authority is that of a slave driver and tyrant, unlike Hiccup’s authority over his dragon, and I think that distinction is a good one to make. So, for the most part, the movie teaches a right relationship between men and dragons. The ambiguity comes at the end. Humans and dragons end up parting ways “until mankind can handle dragons.” (Or something to that effect.) It’s ambiguous, but I felt it was trying to put the dragons on a more equal footing to men.
I suspect that many who are reading this review have also seen Zootopia, and I think it’s a helpful comparison. It would take another review like this one for me to fully express how awful that movie is. My point in bringing it up in comparison is that Zootopia has many of the same themes, but that Zootopia checks all the progressive, anti-God boxes in a way that this movie does not.
Here’s one example. In Zootopia, a bunny is made to feel ashamed that he ever thought that foxes and lions and other wild beasts were wicked and were ever inclined to harm him. Stupid bunny. Wicked bunny. Instead, the bad guys in Zootopia are – surprise, surprise – the corrupt authorities within the city. So my contention is that Zootopia attempts to subvert the natural order of things in a way that How to Train Your Dragon does not.
The fact that How to Train your Dragon maintains the natural order of things makes the series work. The third movie sticks to it for the most post, and that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, I think that third movie, as a movie, was a bit stale. It doesn’t surprise me that a key individual was missing in the production of it. The whole coming of age theme had already been used in the series, and had been done much better in the first movie. So while there was a new villain, and some new good guys, a lot of it still felt like a rehash of the first movie.
One final and important note. The characters use the word “gods” as a curse multiple times. I don’t remember hearing it in the first movie. It’s a hat-tip to Norse polytheism, so it’s meant as a kind of gag, but it’s close enough to the “real thing” that it made me very uncomfortable. It’s a very subtle distinction that an adult could understand, but I think the children simply assumed, if they noticed it, that they had heard the characters using Gods name in vain. It happened more than once.
Overall, I think that the third installment of this series held true to the first one. If it weren’t for the minced oaths, I feel like I would probably recommend it. I believe we should work to restore our sensitivity to such language, and especially since it is a movie for kids I don’t recommend it.