Dead Mothers In Children's Movies

I feel like I only write about movies that came out more than a year ago, but I was quite impressed when I finally saw How To Train Your Dragon 2. I daresay it was better than the first one. I’ve been quite upfront with how much I love Pixar as a studio, and while DreamWorks Animation (the makers of Dragon) don’t make terrible movies, they have a hard time escaping their rival's shadow. The commercial success of Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda franchises is undeniable, but the studio seems to rely on big name voice actors (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, etc.), montage sequences set to current pop songs, and sequels more than Pixar.[ref] Although, at least on the last front, Pixar is coming around.[/ref]

The How To Train Your Dragon films, seem to be aiming for a prestige that is refreshing to see. There were a couple of interesting things that jumped out at me:

In the first Dragon movie, our hero, Hiccup, has grown up without his mother- there’s a brief mention that she was killed by a dragon when he was an infant. This is not at all unusual, especially in animated movies.

Hiccup joins a long list of partially to completely orphaned children’s characters, including: Cinderella, Snow White, Bambi, Ariel, Mowgli, Jasmine, Belle, Pocahontas, Andy, Quasimodo, Tarzan, Aladar, Nani and Lilo, Remy, Tiana, Elsa and Anna; Jesus [ref]Not him.[/ref], that’s a lot.

In the sequel, Hiccup discovers that his mother is Not Quite Dead after all- she’s been living in a nest of dragons, discovering how they behave and how to thrive with them. This is interesting for a number of reasons- usually when a Hero ventures off to discover a missing parent[ref] Invariably on a quest to Find Himself.[/ref], they’re looking for the missing father.

HTTYD2_BD_KeyartFurther, after reuniting with his mother, and discovering how much they have in common, Valka offers Hiccup a life with her, working with dragons. This would pull him away from the political and administrative duties he has as the son of Chief Stoick. In another context, an offer like this would be a Temptation From the True Path. [ref] Hiccup, like almost all young blockbuster heroes, hops along Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with ease.[/ref] Hiccup would have to refuse the Temptation to focus on the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding True Path of the Good Guys.

We’ve seen this before, many times. The most apt example is probably in The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father. Valka nearly quotes Vader, telling Hiccup, “Together we can change the world, as mother and son.”[ref] I love the way the Temptation can twist the story in unexpected ways. Case in point, in A Beautiful Mind, CIA Agent Parker’s Call to Adventure becomes a Temptation for hero John Nash, who must Refuse the Call in order to live with his schizophrenia.[/ref]

But Valka’s offer is not presented as a Temptation. It’s Hiccup connecting with his family and his True Purpose. I suppose this says something about male and female gender roles, but I won’t get in to it here. When Stoick finds Valka as well, it becomes clear that if there is a conflict between Hiccup being a Chief and also flying with dragons, we can be sure that it will be resolved.

I wasn’t as impressed with the way the story handled Drago Bludvist, the villain. We’re told that he simply can’t be reasoned with, and while his philosophy of training dragons is confronted by Hiccup’s, the idea that he can’t change isn’t. This is despite the fact that we’ve already seen numerous examples of people doing just that throughout both films.

It also doesn’t help that Drago is the only character who is not of northern European origin, and is voiced by Djimon Honsou, one of only two people of color in the cast. [ref]The other is blond Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera.[/ref] The implications here are… unfortunate.[ref] Another thing that bugs me is the design of the dragons- not the kooky colors or odd proportions, those are fine. It’s the wings. Dragons are presumably lizard-like reptiles, which means the flying creatures they’re most closely related to are birds. With feathers. And yet they all have leathery, mammalian bat wings. Then, to really mess things up in our fictional zoology, we have creatures like Pegasus, a horse, which is a mammal, that has bird wings. Like a reptile. I realize this is not the fault of the movie, but society’s conception of fictional creatures in general. Get it together, people.[/ref][ref] I suppose they could be based on pterosaur wings. But still. [/ref]

Given that the ending is a clear case of Never Found the Body, I suspect Drago will return in the next sequel, and I hope the question of whether he can change will be addressed more directly.