How to Train Your Dragon 2 may be the first post-millennial children's movie. Instead of pampering the "be yourself" pap the genre usually trades in – see: Dragon studio DreamWorks's own Shrek, which taught kids that you're always good as-is, even if you're a putrid bog monster that farts in everyone's faces – this sequel sets reluctant hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) on a quest to sculpt the contours of his own identity. It's not about the world catching up to understand poor, lonesome Hiccup. It's about Hiccup catching up to the expectations of the world on his own terms.
The original How to Train Your Dragon, from 2010, was essentially a boy-and-his-dog tale about a young(er) Hiccup and his pet dragon, Toothless. It was sweet and slight, and made some nice observations about the symbiotic rapport between humankind and animals – Hiccup and Toothless are both maimed by one another, and learn to work together in order to re-educate the local dragon hunters.
The sequel picks up five years later, with Hiccup now a twentysomething dragon rider spending his time charting the islands and archipelagos surroundings his quaint, now dragon-friendly, hometown.
This time, Hiccup's Viking village is threatened by disfigured baddie Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who has forgone the co-operative dragon/human relationship and enslaved the winged beasts to serve him.There's plenty to admire about How to Train Your Dragon 2. There's the strong acting – by Baruchel (a Viking with a Canadian accent, constantly calling his dragon "bud"), T.J. Miller, Cate Blanchett (as Hiccup's deadbeat mom) and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones's Jon Snow). And there's the gorgeous digital animation and clever use of 3-D, which sees large-scale battle screens unfolding across multiple planes of the frame, and even works to pay off a few jokes in the background.
Most commendable is the film's message – something that feeds into the existent swirl of conversation around the merits of children's entertainment.
In a recent, widely shared Slate article, writer Ruth Graham argued against the current swell in adults reading young-adult fiction geared at teenagers, going so far as to argue that adult readers "should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."
I generally agree with Graham's polemic, as someone who missed the memo that it's now totally okay for people of voting age to openly, unashamedly devour tomes of fiction about sparkling teenage vampires and gloomy, Smiths-loving wallflowers. Isn't it bad enough that grown-up literary fiction has been unseated by popular airport novels about tattooed hackers and practitioners of lite bondage? Do we need to nip candy from babies when we're already gobbling down dessert as the main course?
I'd say: no. And whatever defensive op-ed gymnastics you want to handspring through to justify reading Divergent or The Fault in Our Stars is your own business. But I somehow doubt that most adult YA readers consume it as part of a balanced diet; a zero-calorie palate cleanser following long days labouring in the mines of The Goldfinch or Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Still, YA fiction – and its cinematic equivalent, movies like How to Train Your Dragon 2 – are still worthy of a sustained, critical interest. It's one thing to flex your Sociology or Whatever Studies degree in the elegant parsing of one-or-another blockbuster's corporate messaging or identity politics. But movies geared at kids are entry-level lessons in these ideologies. They teach their presumed viewer – young, spongy, ideally uncynical – how to view the world. And in this respect, some are more admirable than others. (Assuming that it's possible for a given film that exists as part of a much broader media "franchise" – toys, books, video games, a pyrotechnic spectacular stage show – to teach children how to do anything other than broadly consume.)
Beyond its Fern Gully-ish environmentalism, How to Train Your Dragon 2 makes a strong case for the will of the collective trumping that of the individual. In what must be an intentional nod to Thomas Hobbes's allegory for totalitarianism, Bludvist's towering "alpha dragon" is referred to as "Leviathan." The fundamental antagonism the film stages – through all its thrilling, aerial acrobatics – is one between the rule of an absolute sovereign and the right to self-determination.
By comparison, one of cinema's other more popular, lucrative franchises is the Despicable Me series, which prominently features bounding, non-verbal sidekicks called "minions." "Minion madness at McDonald's!" bleated tie-in promotional ads for last summer's Despicable Me 2. The bungling yellow plops are apparently popular enough to warrant a spinoff film, Minions, due next summer. Minions … are a hot property. Minions.
In combination with the film's decidedly progressive, and just plain nice, messaging about conservationism, disability and companion animals, Dragon blows back against the culture of kiddie-oriented snark and cynicism (Shrek and his sub-Shrekian cinematic minions) and adult-baiting escapism of Pixar – which beckon us toward them with their sickly-sweet nostalgia for youth, basically the cinematic equivalent of YA novels (bracketing, of course, the increasing swell of literal cinematic equivalents of YA novels).
Even when How to Train Your Dragon 2 lapses into cliché, as in its numerous bids for show-stopping, Bambi-grade waterworks, it's forgivable. And even as Hiccup nears closer to embracing the destiny laid out for him early in the film, it becomes clear that he's doing it on his own terms – as fully realized a young-adult character as you could hope to see in a 3-D cartoon kiddie movie about riding dragons.
More than just teaching kids what to think about the world they're coming into, it's a rare film that encourages them to think for themselves.