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Dads at the Megaplex

How to Train Your Dragon 001


David Ives - published on 06/15/14

It’s no coincidence that "How To Train Your Dragon 2" is released on Father’s Day.

My father was a drunk. He was also a gambler, a petty criminal, and, on occasion, a violent man. Mostly, though, I just remember him being a drunk.

But an improbable thing happened when I was twelve years old. My father suddenly moved the family to a new state, sobered up, and turned his life over to God. By the time he died, my father had become one of the most well respected men in town and had been instrumental in helping countless others find their own faith through the story of his personal conversion.

It’s funny how things turn out sometimes, isn’t it? Where as a child I had sworn never to be anything like my father when I got older, these days I live in the hope that I’m at least half the man he was. There’s no way around it; fathers cast long shadows over the lives of their sons.

It’s probably no coincidence that How To Train Your Dragon 2 is being released on Father’s Day weekend, because that theme of living up to a larger-than-life dad permeates the movie. As the film begins, five years have passed since the young viking Hiccup, with the help of his dragon pal Toothless, brokered a peace between the village of Berk and the local dragon population. Now, at age 20, Hiccup faces another dauntless challenge. His father, the ever-stubborn Stoick, has decided the time has come for the lad to assume the mantle of village chieftain, and won’t hear anything to the contrary. Hiccup isn’t sure he’s chieftain material, or if he would even want to follow in his father’s footsteps if he were. Hiccup’s main interest is in exploring uncharted lands astride Toothless in search of new dragons.

It’s while on one of these excursions that Hiccup runs afoul of a group of dragon hunters, men in the employ of Drago BloodVist, a vicious warlord intent on conquering the known world with his enslaved dragon army. As is his way, Hiccup attempts to deal with the hunters peacefully, but they’ll have none of it, believing Hiccup to be the mysterious Dragon Rider who has been sabotaging their efforts. Hiccup returns to Berk with news of the impending invasion and offers to act as a peace envoy to Drago, but Stoick, who nearly died at Drago’s hands in the past, refuses to believe peace is possible. Stoick orders the village to prepare for an assault and demands that Hiccup remain grounded. Unsurprisingly, Hiccup ignores his father and takes to the skies to find Drago and convince him to call off the war.

Who he finds instead is the Dragon Rider, a masked woman who captures Hiccup and takes him to a hidden land in which she lives with thousands of dragons. Now if you’ve seen a single commercial for How To Train Your Dragon 2, then you already know the Dragon Rider turns out to be Hiccup’s long-believed dead mother, Valka. After recognizing her son, Valka explains to an understandably bewildered Hiccup how she came to take up with the dragons and why she never returned to her family. She also offers Hiccup the opportunity to leave Berk behind and stay with her to help protect the dragons from men like Drago. For Hiccup, who has been torn over what to do with his life, it’s an offer too tempting to refuse.

At least until Stoick shows up to get him, that is. It would be understandable, based on the advertising campaign for the movie, for anyone going into How To Train Your Dragon 2 to expect the movie to focus on Hiccup and his reunion with his mother. Make no mistake, though, this film is all about the relationship between a father and his son. Stoick was something of a one-note character in the first movie, a hulking blowhard too firmly set in his ways to recognize the merits in his son’s meeker personality. Thankfully, that’s all gone in the sequel.

This time around, Stoick is a changed man, firmly convinced his son has what it takes to lead the village — with a little helpful advice from his father of course. Plus, we learn that while Stoick is still pigheaded, it is to the purpose of serving his people. He was a militaristic leader in the first film because his village was at war, but now he is just as content to spend his time making dragon saddles for the villagers because that is what they now need. Stoick, it turns out, is a true servant-leader, and his people love him for it.

But where we, and Hiccup as well, really learn about Stoick’s true character is when he discovers his wife is still alive. I won’t spoil any of what happens, suffice to say that for a lumbering axe-wielding pagan, Stoick’s reactions are surprisingly Christian. What’s best about these scenes is that we get to see Hiccup sit to the side and take it all in, his every expression a marvel at the man his father is.

If the first movie was about Stoick coming to see the true worth of his son, then How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the flipside, with Hiccup coming to terms with who his father is and what it means to try and follow in a good man’s footsteps. Be warned: there’s a definite possibility for a few lumps in the throat.

Don’t worry though, the movie isn’t just an hour and a half touchy-feely lovefest. There’s plenty of humor and action to go around. The scene in which Hiccup and Toothless first test Hiccup’s new glider suit is appropriately breathtaking, as are the moments spent in the hidden grotto where thousands of dragons frolic in the presence of their leader, the Alpha, a Godzilla sized behemoth with the power to mesmerize and control all other dragons. Each of Hiccup’s band of friends from the first film, including his beloved Astrid, get their time to shine, especially during a dragon riding competition that slightly resembles Quidditch except that it’s played with live sheep instead of a Snitch. There’s also an amusing subplot involving the efforts of Snotlout and Fishlegs to woo the filthy tomboyish Ruffnut, despite her obvious unrequited attraction to the repulsed leader of the dragon hunters.

And just so nobody can say I ignored it, let’s go ahead and address the whole Gobber is gay thing. Writer-director Dean DeBlois has indeed been going around telling news outlets that the character was going to “come out” in the film, which would be a big deal in such a high profile animated feature. But really, despite all the pre-release hype, all we actually get is a single line in which Gobber confesses to Hiccup that besides the constant bickering, there is another reason he never got married himself. And that’s it. He never says what the reason is. I suppose that might be considered “coming out” to someone like Jodie Foster, but to the rest of us, it leaves things kind of ambiguous. In fact, I’m pretty sure there was more overt evidence that Tinky Winky the Teletubbie was homosexual than what we’re given about Gobber in this film. So, for those parents who might have run across that little news item and were concerned about having to explain same-sex attraction to your small children if you took them to see the movie, don’t worry, there’s nothing there.

No, instead of political propaganda, what we get in How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a fun action romp with plenty of humor and a surprisingly touching tale about fathers and sons at its core. Of course, given my childhood experiences, I suppose it’s entirely possible I’m just partial to stories involving crude louts who actually turn out to be loving dads in the end.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy. I’m thinking of you.

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteiaandspends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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