How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Alternate Take

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an incredibly interesting film. It is a credit to its progenitor that it is as entertaining as it is. The first film in this series crafted such compelling characters and such a creative world, a sequel only really has to stay true to those characters and that world to be worth watching. How To Train Your Dragon 2 does this, and it very self-consciously expands the world of the film and the cast of characters in the process. The first we meet Hiccup in this film, he’s opening out a map to show how much larger his world has become since we last saw him.

The first film in the series is also laudable for its idiosyncratic structure. How To Train Your Dragon doesn’t have a traditional villain. The conflict is first interspecies as particular humans and dragons learn to trust each other and then intergenerational as the older and younger vikings learn to have patience with and learn from each other. All films are in search of peace, and the peace found at the end of the first film is truly hopeful as it is founded not on eradication of enemies but on mutual understanding.

For a while, HTTYD2 is a surprisingly delightful film, as Gary Ingle discuses in depth here. The world-expanding at its heart extends to relational world-expanding as well. A person long thought dead returns to viking society, and this person’s return churns up all sorts of complications and possibilities, both for Hiccup and his people and for the story itself. There are a handful of scenes in this film that make marriage seem more magnificent and mysterious than any mythological creature the film can conjure up. The complications that come along with this person’s reappearance are compelling enough to carry the film and fertile enough narrative soil to provide Hiccup the opportunity to learn what it means to lead. Unfortunately, the film abandons this storyline in favor of a more common narrative conflict.

With regards to this more typical conflict and that conflict’s resolution, How To Train Your Dragon 2 strays from the first feature’s glory. SPOILERS are necessary for this discussion, so if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know its plot points, you should stop reading now.

The film strays first in introducing a more traditional villain, Drago. Traditional villains aren’t necessarily unwelcome in a film, but as I said, one of the remarkable things about How To Train Your Dragon was it’s lack of a typical villain. The nature of HTTYD2‘s villain is more problematic. Drago is given no motivation other than a lust for power. Perhaps one can make the argument that Drago lusts for power because the Viking (and dragon) society is a patriarchal one in which the strongest male rules, but that reduces him to little more than an animal heeding primeval urges, a kind of Darwinian idea brought to computer-animated life. HTTYD2 goes out of its way to avoid destroying Drago as well, but unlike the first film, HTTYD2 doesn’t offer him a means of integration into Viking society either. Even if it doesn’t kill him, the film has to do away with him as ignobly as it conjures him up.

The addition of Drago and the conflicts he creates seem so foreign to the rest of the HTTYD story, the film seems to go out of its way to legitimize his presence and the other characters’ actions in response. The legitimization comes in the form of the arguments we have in the real world about gun control. The film uses anti-gun control arguments to explain its characters’ action, both good and bad. I’m not joking. Jeffrey Overstreet even talks about it in his review/sigh of the film. Read his thoughts, including his friend Danny’s very humorous quip upon exiting the theater.

I frequently contend that we ought to first listen to a film, consider its contentions and questions, and then respond. This is easier when the film is 1) well-made and/or 2) supports something I already believe (just as it is easier to have a conversation with a person who is 1) eloquent and 2) believes as I do). This cinematic conversation proves more difficult when the film isn’t as well-crafted and/or supports something I do not. However, I’m committed to dialog, so I’m going to do my best to take these borrowed-from-anti-gun-control arguments seriously.

The main argument presented in the film at about the mid-way point in the story is that dragons don’t do bad things. Rather, bad people do bad things with dragons. At the end, an extension of that argument is presented when Hiccup basically says, “We’re good people, and we’ll only do good things with dragons.”

This is a dragon-centered reworking of Charlton Heston’s famous quote about guns. He said, “Here’s my credo. There are no good guns, There are no bad guns. A gun in the hands of a bad man is a bad thing. Any gun in the hands of a good man is no threat to anyone, except bad people.”

There’s a basic logic to that idea and that logic is built on a series of assumptions. The first assumption is that a gun, separated from a human hand, is inanimate. It has no soul. It has no will of its own. A gun by itself a neutral object. (This fact doesn’t exactly extend to dragons, who have wills of their own, but that’s beside the point, right?)

The second assumption pertains to the nature of humanity. Heston’s credo assumes that a man (let’s maintain his gender exclusive language) can be either good or bad and that the either good or bad man will do either good or bad things based on his own inherent goodness or badness. Or, is it Heston’s assumption that goodness and badness is demonstrated by the actions of the man, that a man does good things and is therefore good or does bad things and is therefore bad?

Either way, this is where I must take exception to HTTYD2 and Heston’s claim based on what the Bible teaches concerning the nature of humanity. “There is no righteous person. Not even one,” Romans 3 quotes Psalm 14 as declaring. “All have sinned,” Romans reports a moment later. There are no good people, whether you define goodness based on some inherent quality or on a person’s actions. Everyone is bad. Everyone does bad things. The only goodness we know comes through Christ, and until we’re resurrected like Christ into his glory, we’re still being sanctified. We’re not good yet. Any person with a gun in her or his hand is prone to doing bad things, because every person is prone to sin.

I’m sorry, Hiccup. I’m glad to hear you want peace, but as you just demonstrated when you and your dragons blasted Drago into submission, you are as prone to using dragons destructively as anyone else.

Now, my point here is not to campaign for gun control. The issue is much more complicated than any one argument for or against it. I am simply compelled to take this film and the philosophies undergirding it seriously. I think I honor the film by doing so. I think I honor Charlton Heston by doing that as well. Like Hiccup, like Heston, and like anyone who positions themselves on the opposite side of the argument, we all want peace. None of us want another single incident of gun violence to be perpetrated by anyone, and the actions we take as a society and as individuals to assure that need to be rooted in logic, and, I think, Biblical wisdom.

We’re never going to achieve that if we aren’t willing to listen to each other, take each seriously, talk to one another, and work together to build peace. That’s the kind of integrative, restorative peace that was at the heart of the first film in this series and that I hope will be at the heart of any further installments in this series that are to come.

For more thoughts on How To Train Your Dragon 2, we encourage you to read these reviews:

Christianity Today
Reel World Theology