Many of you will have read Tasha Robinson’s excellent article on depictions of gender in film. The piece, entitled We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, traces the trend in modern Hollywood movies of setting up inspirational and powerful women only to marginalise them and have the men take over. It formed the basis of The Ripley Factor by which I now measure the representations of women on this website.
The theory is clearly named after the female lead of the Matrix films but it is How to Train Your Dragon 2 that inspired it. It seems that what frustrated Robinson so much with the character of Valka in this film is how close they came to getting it right. Valka is strong, skilled, knowledgable, athletic, awe-inspiring and selfless while also being flawed and vulnerable.
Another good aspect of the character, not picked up by Robinson, is that she is in her forties which sets her apart from many women in mainstream cinema. Yet for all of this great role modelling, when she meets the protagonist, her long lost son Hiccup, he largely takes over her twenty year mission and starts to fight her battles for her.
The other thing that I see as problematic with all of this is that she only becomes heroic when she walks away from her parenting responsibilities and is immediately disempowered when she takes them on again. Frankly, as a concept that doesn’t feel particularly supportive of women who work outside the home.
The thing is though, and this takes nothing away from Robinson’s argument, Valka is not the only female in the film. In the first movie Astrid was the most talented and plucky of all the trainee dragon slayers. She was confident and knew her own mind and even though she fell for Hiccup by the end, at no point did she compromise her strength and independence.
In this sequel Astrid continues to be an excellent female character. She is brave, head strong, smart, commanding, loyal, bold and funny. She is easily the equal of the hero in terms of her agency and drives the events of the film forward at several points. In fact her character is far more in keeping with the kind of women we have seen in animated films recently with Epic, Coraline, Toy Story 3, Rio, Frozen, Tangled and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I guess this only makes it worse that Valka lets the side down.
If you apply my Ripley Factor questions to Astrid she comes out really well. Does this female character exist only to define or motivate men? No. Is she believable as a real person. Well, leaving the dragon riding aside for a second yes, more so in fact that the über-skilled Valka.
Is she objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film? No, she isn’t objectified at all which on the one hand you would expect in a kids film but then think about the tiny waisted, big eyed, sashaying hips, curvy princesses that Disney are turning out even now (yes, I mean you Elsa).
Does her inclusion in the film feel at all like tokenism? I supposed they have deliberately made her the best warrior to show how cool girls can be but not really. She isn’t the only female on the team and her gender is only a factor because we’re still looking for out for how the girls are presented. Maybe one day strong women just won’t seem different anymore.
Speaking of other females on the team, the movie also has Ruffnut who is a whole different kettle of fish again. Tough, tomboyish and dismissive of boys until she sees a guy she likes at which point she begins to fawn and simper. Still whatever you think of her, she goes after what she wants with determination so there’s that.
Interestingly for an animated film, all of the characters – men and women, have aged. This story is set five years after the events of the first film and Viking Chief Stoic the Vast is setting his son Hiccup up to lead the town in his place. Hiccup is no longer the clumsy nerd from before. He is acrobatic, strong and confident but he doesn’t want to be chief. (Can you see where this might go?) He clearly has a stable and respectful relationship with his girlfriend Astrid but his real affections are directed toward his dragon. That’s okay though, man’s best friend is his dog and Hiccup’s Night Fury (the last beast of its kind – until part three no doubt) has a major canine complex.
None of the other dragons are given anywhere near as much character as Night Fury Toothless. (Incidentally, the names Hiccup and Toothless work in the odd world of Cressida Cowell’s books but I’ve always found them jarring in the context of the movies.) Valka’s dragon Cloudjumper gets some nice interactions with Toothless but otherwise the creatures are just creatures.
That said, they do look amazing. Close up they are cartoony but when you see them in flight, often in their hundreds, they look magnificent. As with the first film, it seems that the writers think the best way to make a dragon awesome is to make it really really big but the production designers and art department know better. The way they swoop around in battle is superb, all vibrant colours, spinning spikes, fins and wings. This is the best that giant lizards have looked on screen since Jurassic Park. Peter Jackson, put that in your pipe and Smaug it.
The story is fine but generally doesn’t hold any surprises. There is one thing that I didn’t see coming though. It is the equivalent of Hiccup losing his foot in the first film in terms of brave narrative choices. It centres around the fact that, trained as they are, these dragons are still wild animals and are sometimes slave to instincts with dangerous consequences.
Of course, while mentioning Hiccup’s injury it is worth pointing out that as a result this time round he is an amputee. It isn’t often that cartoon characters have a disability and the fact that this in no way slows him down sends a suitably positive message.
Personally I don’t think How to Train Your Dragon 2 is quite as good as the How to Train Your Dragon but it is so similar for this to almost be impossible to call. It certainly doesn’t have the character arcs we had last time for either Hiccup, Stoic, Astrid or Toothless.
For a while Dreamworks Animation’s key character was Shrek. He was the company’s Mickey Mouse but they ran him into the ground with increasingly poor films. Hiccup and Toothless are set to take the ogre’s crown as key properties for the studio but they need to make sure they keep a focus on story. Director Dean DeBlois (head writer on Disney’s greatest feminist fable, Mulan) has said that this is part two of a trilogy so hopefully they’ve got something good for the final act.
My guess is that it will see Hiccup torn between his relationship with the people around him and his dragon and quite possibly Toothless will be dealing with something similar, only the other way round. Let’s see how the women fair in the middle of that.
Is this one for the kids?
What was so good about the first Dragon film was the way it appealed to children and adults alike with nothing more than good storytelling. This set it apart from so many of Dreamworks’ other films – Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, even Wallace & Grommit – which were constructed around broad comedy characters and knowing wise cracks. The sequel follows the same principle as its predecessor but with that slightly weaker story.
The film is rated PG as some of the battle scenes are quite frenetic and potentially frightening. There is also some death to deal with. That said I saw it with my five year old daughter who clapped and cheered the whole way through and wasn’t marginally disturbed by any of it. This is the kid who was scared by The Lego Movie. I’m sure she was more comfortable with this though because she was already so familiar with the characters.