This movie got delayed a lot. After the first one the whole series did. When the second instalment of the franchise as part two of a trilogy it was supposed to be releasing in 2013, we saw it in 2014. This one was supposed to drop in 2016. It’s a shame really, if it had come out then it might actually have felt relevant.
I don’t think the economic reality surrounding animated sequels has really changed, but recently we’ve seen audiences becoming more critical of their necessity. I’ve seen muted reactions in the past year to the new Cars, the new Incredibles, the new Ralph. Parents, even now, are staring down the prospect of Frozen 2 as more a grim inevitability than an actual movie. Superhero cinematic universes have trained us to expect every new episode to be some evolution, a perceivable step forwards. The prospect of spending more time around characters we love doesn’t appeal so much anymore. In all probability because corporations are now very able to surround us with them all the time.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World doesn’t really have a story to justify its telling. I mean, the second one barely did and this feels like an even paler imitation. Once again there is a sinisterly accented bad guy coming to capture and enslave all of the dragons. Of course, he’s going to take a special interest in our lead’s pet — the supposed last of its kind. Our plucky gang of heroes are once again going to have to find some way to outwit or evade them. Both have a whole lot of plot for sequels to a film that only really gets stuck into it for the third act.
Like, the first movie is about the joy of flight. It spends whole long sequences embracing that exhilaration, demonstrating how the act can be any number of things: emancipating, threatening, romantic. It is as the ultimate transgression against a repressive and uncaring society. It was released in 3D before everything was; flight is the promise of the impossible made real, it is telling that Jay Baruchel’s hero, Hiccup, must transcend physics in order to reform his community.
Yet, that film ends by creating the ultimate other, a huge monstrous dragon that must be killed in order to achieve peace. It’s a rough third act and is kinda telling of the direction that the series slowly bends towards. These are real small-c conservative ass movies. Like, the first one could charitably be described as liberal: difference should be tolerated so long as it coincides with prosperity. After that, they take a bent towards isolationism, protectionism, even xenophobia maybe.
Like, over the course we’re taught that any attempt to make a better world is not only futile but will actively cause harm. Outsiders are misguided, unwilling to learn and harm the culture; they cannot be improved. The status quo should be upheld through the utilisation of superior military force which must be denied the aggressors, aggressors who are coming unbidden looking to steal the source of your prosperity.
If this felt like an uncomfortable undertone five years ago, it feels worse now. The filmmaking reflects this, the setpieces now are fights and battles, our hero cutting his way through an enemy encampment with a flaming sword. Gone is the freedom and majesty of flight, the skies are no longer an escape from the world, they are a grim nothing that everyone resists voyaging across. The inference is clear, this is an adult story now, these characters are grown and so must face the harsh realities of a cruel world.
Excuse me, what? Bullshit. I struggle often with how revolutionary I might be — considering that a revolution improperly orchestrated would most benefit those profiting from the power structures left unchallenged — but I ain’t out here saying that we should all just give up. That’s the conclusion of this film though: the world is shit, give up now. Take its approach to Astrid, female co-lead and I’d say the most actually defined character we get. Her role in the film is explicitly to give up, she only now exists to support her boyfriend — give in to being his marriageable material.
And you think and it’s obvious. These are boy movies. The fact that they haven’t evolved is so disappointing.
Nothing about them has changed in the past ten years, their storytelling, their focus, their look. The competition is now far more ambitious.
I still remember the first time I watched How To Train Your Dragon. It was at a summer church camp; the place spelled some kinda freedom for me because the relative safety meant I could venture around the festival grounds alone. Yet, alone was all I ever got to be, because the youth group’s friendship circles all revolved around my various brothers. So anyway, I spent a lot of time in the movie tent and watched the film and cried and longed that a part of me could somehow soar in the same way.
I am sad that this is what the series turned into.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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