I know, I know, my title may sound a bit redundant but the truth is the first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 I...hated it. Not loudly or emphatically but with a quiet burning dislike. I couldn't explain it and I couldn't identify the source. All I remember is that I left the theater feeling unhappy.
When I think of my top five animated films that lists runs the gamut from hand drawn classics like Beauty and the Beast to computer animated spectacles like Pixar's Wreck-It Ralph. DreamWorks Animation 2010 film, How to Train Your Dragon would also be on that list. Beautiful imagery, a fantastic story, soul infusing voice acting came together to make a film that brought a smile to face even years later. That's why I was so surprised by my initial reaction to its sequel. I couldn't understand how I could love its predecessor and be so conflicted by a film that shares many of its themes.
I love animation. Love it in a way that could even border on obsessive. Whether it be anime or children's cartoons, hand drawn or CGI, I love it. There's something about the limitless possibilities of creating a world, populating it with characters that can emote and make facial cues that can be more expressive than real life. The top tier of my animation interests is the animated movie. Whether it's strange or says something about my own perpetual inner child, animation just makes me feel happy. Through its vivid landscapes of rainbow colors and strange characters it takes me to a place of joy, glee and carefree exuberance. Those are feelings that I rarely touch on when watching live action films. It's not that live action doesn't make me feel. Ask anyone who was sitting next to me while I sobbed my way through The Fault in Our Stars. But that's just it -- live action makes me feel sad.
Being a struggling creative in LA that's an emotion I'm all too familiar with. I turn to animation to give me a break from my reality. It's a literal burst of happiness that stays with me long after I've left the theater. As animation has continue to grow, the diversity of the stories it tells has increased. It's no longer just for children or to sell products. What started with Walt Disney Princess stories and the intricate childhood journeys of Miyazaki has grown into an increasingly adult medium.
Animated movies once the easy choice for any parent or regressed adult like myself, now deal with darker themes. Themes closer to reality. I can no longer go into an animated movie with the assumption that everything's going to be okay in the end. Of course, the basic three act structure that has existed for over two millennia will ultimately bring a resolution and end in a newly establish status quo. But that doesn't mean everything's going to go be ok. It might or it might not. That wasn't always a question animation left its audiences wondering.
Spurred on by Pixar and Walt Disney Studios recent resurgence, animation is pushing its characters and its audience to feel more complex emotions. To feel sad. To feel unhappy. To feel...more adult. It's not a new phenomenon that animated stories have begun to develop beyond starry eyed protagonist but I'm starting to pay more and more attention to it. I remember vividly how watching Merida break down at the possible loss of her mother in Brave struck such a chord that I began to cry. I felt sad thinking about how my own mother was 3,000 miles away. And every time I board the plane from the East Coast back to Los Angeles, I lose her. I remember the sacrifice Ralph makes in Wreck-It Ralph that is so selfless that I breathed a sigh of relief as his best friend, Vanellope, rescues him at the last possible moment. You would think well obviously, she's going to rescue him. They can't let the main character die, can they? I don't think that's true anymore. Yes, a lead character has yet to die but they're no longer immune to being damaged whether that's emotionally or physically.
This brings me back to How to Train Your Dragon 2. When I left the theater, I replayed the movie again and again in my head. I liked it but...something felt off. It is an absolute visual spectacle. No matter how small their role, each character feels lived in. The voice acting is superb, thanks in no small part to the work of its leads. The story is a terrific arc for its main protagonist, Hiccup. So, why was I upset? Because something happened that was permanent and that felt too real.
When you watch enough animation or cartoons for that matter, you become used to the impermanence of it all. How many times has Family Guy's Griffin family been shot, dismembered, disfigured or died only to reappear next week, ready and raring for new batch adventures. Animation's movie counterparts shared this principle. Spoiler Alert, the spell ultimately is broken and Merida gets her mother back. As I said above, Vanellope in an impressive feat of glitching does save her best friend. But for Hiccup, there's no tabula rasa. There's no do over. Final Spoiler Alert, Stoic The Vast, played wonderfully by Gerald Butler, dies at the end of the second act after diving in front of a blast from the titular dragon who's been turned against his best friend. Stoic may look down on his son from Valhalla but let there be no doubt he is gone. The best we can hope for in How To Train Your Dragon 3 is a dream/spirit vision from the ether. His death is permanent. And from the chorus of cries and questions to "Mommy" and "Daddy," I wasn't the only one to feel that concrete change in theater. Even at a young age, the concept was clear. This was real life invading an unreal world. Dads really do die in the real world and they don't come back for sweeps.
And the fact that the movie made me feel that way was upsetting. The feeling stuck with me for several weeks. I wrestled with it. I couldn't decide if the story benefits outweighed the loss of such a magnanimous character. It's irrefutable that Stoic's death, fairly foreshadowed from the first act, creates the impetus Hiccup needs to be a leader for both the human and dragon world. It's a pivotal plot point and a powerful way to end the second act. Any writer worth his or her weight would tell you sometimes sacrifices must be made for the sake of story. Despite knowing all this, it still didn't sit right. Leaving me with no other alternative than...to see it again.
It's probably not surprising but the last animated movie I saw twice in the theater was Brave. Again, a movie that left me fairly emotional. So, I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 again, from beginning to end. And you know what...Stoic's death still hurt. I still felt sad. But I knew it would get better and that I would go on. Just like real life, bad things happen and they hurt but you don't stop living. And each day, it gets a bit easier.
If it seems I'm prescribing too much value to "cartoon film"...maybe I am. But often, the real world is more ridiculous and incomprehensible than anything that happens in animation. And that's why I've always liked them. I use animation to hide away. Not just from the real world but the feelings and struggles that go along with it. Who wants to live in reality when you can live a fantasy? How to Train Your Dragon 2 shattered that illusion. And I respect it for. In fact, it makes me more invested and care all the more for the series and the characters I've come to know. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is probably one of my favorite films of this year because it was like medicine. It didn't taste great at first but in the end it made me feel better.
--How To Train Your Dragon 2 is available digitally as of writing. And soon to be available on DVD and Blue Ray November 11, 2014. If you felt unsure about the first outing like me, do me a favor...and watch it again. I promise your opinion will change too .--