Wonderful fights between narcissism and worthlessness

How to Train Your Dragon: Why I Loved Astrid Enough to Hate Where She’s Going

on September 8, 2012

How to Train Your Dragon – Gift of the Night Fury

 

After a day of lazing around and watching Disney songs on Youtube ten times each, I found How to Train Your Dragon – Gift of the Night Fury. And it made me excited.  I still get excited when I think about the first movie, and I have a special heart flutter when I think about the sequel that’s been promised that doesn’t seem to have any reason to NOT be produced.  How to Train Your Dragon is tied (cop-out!) with Wall-E and Iron Giant  as my favorite animated feature, and its soundtrack is one of my absolute favorite works of music. I will still put the movie on and just listen to it as background noise. So it was fuckin’ grand to see this 20-minute animated short be so great.  Instead of terrible.

*SPOILERS SURPRISE*

The short basically revolves around viking Christmas in the wake of the first movie’s events. It’s the first Notlookingupthelovablyweirdholidayname with dragons. Hiccup takes Toothless out for a flight, practicing new flying techniques where they separate and Hiccup lives Newton’s first law before reconnecting.  Everyone in Berk is jovial and excited for the festivities, until a wave of dragons flies overhead (which is a brilliant way of showing, not telling, that there are other non-Berk dragons out there) and every dragon in town save Toothless suddenly joins them. Hiccup literally runs into the cloud of dragons on the way home, losing his helmet in the process.  The teen group, unchanged from the first feature film, discusses the events on their own after a town hall about the sudden dragon dispatch and, after mulling over Ruffnut’s point about Toothless not being able to leave without Hiccup, he makes a new tail attachment that moves with Hiccup’s remaining tail-half. After presenting it to him, Toothless immediately takes off.  Fishlegs acts really weird until Toothless follows him and discovers he chained his dragon Meatlug up, and, getting excited, Meatlug breaks out and flies off with Hiccup on his face. The Hiccup-less teens find eggs (and that Meatlug was a female) and conclude the dragons left to give birth at the same time Hiccup lands on the breeding isle. Both groups also seperately discover that Gronkle eggs explode when they hatch, although the teen group finds this out after hiding the eggs as surprises in everyone’s home, destroying most of the town. Hiccup gets the dragons and fresh dragon babies back to town sans Toothless, who was missing, and it’s a time of superjoy viking Christmas again! Hiccup and Astrid have a brief moment where Astrid comforts him in light of not finding Toothless, but then Toothless returns mid-convo with Hiccup’s helmet! And spits it onto his head! The rest of the short’s plot wrapped up, Hiccup and Toothless have a touching scene where Toothless grabs the old saddle and tail attachment and pushes Hiccup to reattach the tail that needs his partner in place of the new, automatic one. Movie ends as they fly back out over the sea and Hiccup gives an ending narration.

*LESS SPOILERS STILL SPOILERS THOUGH SURPRISE*

And one of the best parts was the running time and how well the story fit. Before credits the movie ran at 21 minutes, and the story felt as though it fit comfortably, getting out everything it needed to say and develop while not having any filler or padding.  I will admit this is the second media I’ve seen in the Dragons universe, and, again despite the shortness of the feature, it felt like growth on the back of the first film, possibly in preparation for the sequel in 2014. It didn’t feel like the “How to Train Your Dragon CHRISTMAS SPECIAL!!!!!” It felt like a story in-universe that grows Hiccup and Toothless while also showing the new dynamic in Berk now that there are dragons.  I am bad at divining this sort of thing, but it also sounds like they retained 100% voice talent.  A lot of this is just beating straight-to-DVD Disney sequel qualities that seem to show up in a lot of those “films.” In a lot of ways, Gift of the Night Fury feels like it could have been 20 more minutes in the first movie, which I feel is a mark of success.  This feels like a bona fide sequel, albeit a short one that presumes you’ve watched the first movie or browsed a plot summary.  This feature does a lot right.

Before moving on to my main problem with this film and the first film (and another con), two more pros. This short shows Hiccup becoming a better dragon rider perfectly. At the outset, he jumps off Toothless’ back as Toothless flies under a rock arch and Hiccup “flies” over it, then reconnecting with Toothless. He cheers and says “Yes! Finally!”  Perfect example of how well this movie uses its runtime. Little bit of cool dragon riding, but also speaks to training they’ve been doing by showing us a moment of payoff and having Hiccup say two words, and shows that Hiccup is continuing to master dragon riding in a true sense of the word “master.” It’s a great example of showing, not telling, which this movie does right a lot, and also great, quick character development. Even though it isn’t set up in the movie, the just-before-final-scene scene with Toothless selecting his own tail is also wonderful show-don’t-tell and character development.  Hiccup is confused at first, stating Toothless now has a working tail before coming around to, “Oh, you want the one that makes us linked.” It’s not the resolution to a conflict between them, as it feels it could have been, but also works wonderfully as a relationship moment between Toothless and Hiccup.  This movie is great at setting up what’s been happening since movie 1, while also giving hints and opportunities of where we might be going as we go further.

I really, really love this movie franchise (well, these two pieces I’ve seen. IMDB is saying there’s a whole bunch of other shit in the works). However. There is one thread that bums me out way too much that is in both movies, and Gift of the Night Fury exacerbates it in a baaaad way. Astrid.  Which I hate, because for the first hour and change of How to Train Your Dragon, Astrid’s actually pretty great.  The whole group of teenagers save Hiccup rely on children’s films stereotypes, really.  The fighting siblings.  The over-confident jock trying to impress the girl.  The nerd.  What made Astrid great was that she wasn’t any stereotypically female stereotype. She was the young, headstrong fighter looking to prove her worth. She could have worked easily as a main protagonist, and follows in a long line of this archetype. She’s a bit brash, a bit overconfident, and too focused on success. And Hiccup, a worthless competitor before his miraculous turnaround suddenly overshadowing her, would have been perfect if predictable character growth. She learns to appreciate her own merits independent of gaining success, or learns to be a graceful first runner-up. It seemed to be following an archetype, but one usually reserved for the male protagonists of these stories, and while it was still Hiccup’s story, Astrid had a strong place in it. Then you get to Hiccup’s final test in dragon training, and she suddenly regresses into being Hiccup’s girlfriend. I’m going to pin it there, although this process starts the second she’s riding on Toothless’ back. After that, this is Hiccup’s show. Astrid gets to play an active role, but in Hiccup’s story. She’s prompting Hiccup, but she’s prompting him to make decisions without much input from her after the push to decide. She drives Hiccup over to his dragon so he/they can defeat the big bad, and then she needs saving herself! By Hiccup/Toothless. It still bums me out when Hiccup flies off valiantly to fight the Red Death and Astrid looks on, almost tearfully and says “Go.” Yech.

The main reason this disappoints me so much is because Astrid so uniquely is failed by characterization in a movie that, besides for Hiccup and Stoick, fails EVERY character in that category. Hiccup grows and finds strength in his unique qualities, and Stoick learns to appreciate his son for who he is, which is almost more a mirror to Hiccup’s growth than unique growth for Stoick, but I count it. But, save Astrid, none of the teenagers grow. The twins fight during the final fight scene, and apparently bond with a dragon whose heads argue, reinforcing their character flaw that, in a movie that grew the twins, would have been worked out a bit. Snotlout is unchanged, although he doesn’t get the girl, which leaves a few possibilities for sequels to explore (none explored here). And Fishlegs is actually a victim of one of the wonderful aspects of Berk imbued by the writers. In any other number of kids movies, both Hiccup and Fishlegs would be ostracized from the teen group for being brainy, but the movie doesn’t attack Fishlegs’ nerdy knowledge base about dragons or Hiccup’s scientific curiosity and ingenuity. Hiccup is seen as worthless because his plans and inventions often backfire and serve no practical use, not because he’s reading and creating in the first place. Likewise, Fishlegs is often shut down by the non-Astrid teens before Hiccup joins the group, but mostly because they’re just not interested personally in his stats. He’s still very much a part of the group from the getgo. So, he gets no arc, same as Gobber, who is a teacher, best friend, and comic relief as the movie needs him in those roles. So Astrid’s regression as a character, especially as the movie could have made her one of the few to grow, is just shitty shitty shitty. Not surprising, and not movie-ruining, but it makes that “Go.” always feel so low a point in the film.

So. Astrid. She ends the first film as Hiccup’s girlfriend, and there’s two brief moments of that in Gift of the Night Fury, but mostly she gets to breath as her own character, as leader de facto while Hiccup’s away. And, somehow, the movie manages to make her backslide even further away from being a compelling character. When the teens find the Gronkel eggs, it is her idea to disperse them as viking Christmas surprises, and when the eggs hatching destroys half the town, Stoick and everyone (including her!) comes down on her, putting her basically where Stoick started in the first film, even if it’s just for a minute then forgotten about as the plot moves forward. She is also determined to keep holiday cheer up between the dragons leaving and returning, and she does this by making Yak Nog. The feature plays it for laughs (because Yak Nog’s gross as shit, damn), and I’m worried I’m overreacting to things that aren’t there, but relegating Astrid to uplifting everyone’s emotions in the village, then having her primary plan for cheer (before Gronkel Eggstravaganza) being cooking-based… I guess I’d have rather seen her sleuthing, trying to discover why the dragons left and where they went. Or even just have the whole group do that, with her as part of the group. It’s ultimately the action between dragons leave and Hiccup gets carried away/ group finds eggs.  These are her primary story events, but her character here also seems less confident. When the eggs blow up, she’s panicked, at a loss for words when questioned by Stoick, and, for being taken by surprise as much as anyone else, seems like she’s blaming herself before Stoick ever does. It’s such an odd choice given that, again, this film only moves along the characterization of Hiccup and Toothless. Second-to-last scene develops Toothless as a character, so why the fuck does Astrid get to slide on backwards towards being useless without her man around? (I’m really worried about what her plot will be in How to Train Your Dragon 2)

The other huge con is the music. I’ve talked enough with Astrid-chat above, so I’ll make it quick: I still listen to the original OST. Gift of the Night Fury reuses it and has no new music as far as I could tell, which, honestly, I’d probably love if the film didn’t so horribly misuse the score. Familiar themes are dropped in haphazardly, quickly and jarringly and ending much the same. The choice of what to use where fails a lot too. Hiccup’s talking to Toothless for a second while not much is going on? Time to use the theme from the stick drawing scene in How to Train Your Dragon! It’s just so unbelievably bad for how well the rest of the film is done.

Given all of that, I love  Gift of the Night Fury as much as I still love How to Train Your Dragon. It feels like the same film in a great way. Same problems, same strengths, same opening and ending Hiccup narration. Same feelings. Save for the fucking score.

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