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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Curse of Understanding the Craft: How to Train Your Dragon 2

For this post, I tried to keep spoilers very limited.

Going to the movies for my family is a rare treat. So for Father’s Day, my husband and I rounded up the kids and trekked to the theater to celebrate. My husband picked “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which I anticipated would be great fun since the first was awesome and people were raving about the sequel. Little did I know...

Halfway through the movie, with my husband on one side and the kids on the other, all of them thoroughly engrossed in the action, I was completely lacking that thrill a good movie provides which takes you away from reality for a brief time. I sat there and kept thinking, “Why am I not enjoying this? What is wrong with this movie?” I wanted to get lost in the story and with the characters I enjoyed so much from the first film. I wanted to be sucked into another world of dragons and Vikings. And I most certainly wanted to make sure my husband didn’t realize I wasn’t having a good time because that might dampen his Father’s Day treat. But I couldn’t shake off that gnawing discontent that robbed the movie of its power.

And then, it finally dawned on me. My writer’s instinct, which I had trained so eagerly and fed with careful study of plot and characterization and style, was ruining my ability to just go with a movie that, on the surface, should have been good fun.

The credits rolled, the lights came on, and, of course, the first thing my husband did was turn to me and ask, “So what did you think?” I’ve never been a good liar. Even had I tried, he would have known. Instead, I postponed answering by busying myself with counting off the stitching in the sock I was knitting. (Yes, I occasionally knit during other activities. The knitting wasn’t the problem this time, but it sure was a convenient excuse to postpone a conversation I didn’t want to have.)

My kids pranced out of the theater talking animatedly about how awesome the movie was, and I followed in silence, trying to compose how I might explain the fact that I hadn’t enjoyed the show in a way that wouldn’t dampen the afternoon.

But I’d forgotten one small detail: my husband knows me better than I do sometimes. Much as he would have preferred I enjoy “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” he knows my writer’s mind and instincts get the better of me. He can predict them better than I can in many cases.

On the ride home, the moment of confession came, and as I explained my experience of the movie, the reasons for my disappointment finally clicked into place. And, once again, I was confronted with the terrible curse that writers who become proficient at fiction composition face: the inability to escape an instinctive sense of what makes a good, solid story. No matter how much we might want to just sit back and enjoy a book, show, or movie, somewhere in the backs of our minds, we’re analyzing, scribbling notes, comparing, contrasting, and seeing how this particular tale matches up with our understanding of good structure, characters, tension, etc.

So what was wrong with “How to Train Your Dragon 2” that bulldozed my ability to enjoy it?

The external conflict (the one between Hiccup and the villain) was good. The stakes got higher as the story progressed. There was a climactic battle. The visual effects were cool, etc. But by comparison, the internal conflict (the battle Hiccup fights with himself) was practically nonexistant. It was like the writers had attempted to include it, but then given it a hand waving effort. Every “achievement” in the plotting of Hiccup’s internal conflict came with little effort or sacrifice on Hiccup’s part, which meant it came cheaply and without satisfaction. It was a paper effigy of a internal conflict, empty and without true substance.

Hiccup didn’t really even grow as a person, which is part of what made the first movie enjoyable. Watching him go from trying to be a great Viking to learning to appreciate and trust the beautiful and amazing creatures he once hunted to changing not only his life but the lives of his whole people was a great joy to watch and satisfying. But in this sequel, he made no such great feats in growth. Sure, he finds out where he got his gift for dragon training, but it was a reassurance. He wasn’t challenged to become something greater. The little effort the movie made to do this fell woefully flat.

The essence of internal conflict is when a character desires two things that he cannot have. If he has one, he loses the other and vise versa. For this to truly work, both things must be deeply important to the character, and achieving either one must cost the character something personal. Through the trial of dealing with the incompatible desires, the character grows into something greater. Hiccup did not face this. And the most frustrating part was that there was just enough there in the story that could have been developed into a compelling internal conflict and wasn’t. It was like--though I don’t think this was intentional on anybody’s part--the story kept saying, “Oh yeah, that internal conflict stuff, here’s a crumb. Stop bugging me about it. So what if it doesn’t build correctly. Try to enjoy this tiny morsel. So what if it’s the size of an ant.”

Additionally, there were important characters that appeared involved in the plot but didn’t actually accomplish and contribute much, if anything. That cheapened their roles in the story and themselves as characters. Hiccup’s mother was the worst. On the surface, she appeared fun and a bit tragic, someone I wanted to like, but in truth, she mainly just reinforced what we and most everyone else in the movie already knew, that Hiccup had great skill with dragons. She could have been removed from the story without much impact. She should have been handled better. She should have been dynamic and really shaken things up for Hiccup. She should have added elements to the story and Hiccup that were until then unknown. She should have provided something essential to Hiccup’s growth and to resolving the external conflict. She should have been awesome. But she wasn’t given a crucial role. The small part she played in the external conflict could have been removed easily and handled entirely through Hiccup and his father.

Furthermore, there was too much hand waving, or plot elements inserted or resolved without believable or logical explanation, especially in the climax when Toothless and Hiccup finally confront the Big Bad Guy. Another hand waving came in that Hiccup’s mother failed to provide a satisfactory explanation for her absence from his life. Granted, she gave an explanation, but it wasn’t nearly enough in my opinion. And the way Toothless and Hiccup overcomes the great challenge they face in the climax should have been set up from the beginning. Readers, and in this case viewers, don’t have to know how triumph will be achieved, but when it happens, they should be able to sit back and say, “Oh! So that’s why he did such and such earlier,” or “Now that all makes sense.” Toothless and Hiccup as heroes should have something exceptional that grants them the ability to overcome what they face. Hiccup’s exceptionalism was established in the first movie, though it could have used some polishing in this one. However, Toothless’s breakthrough comes out of the blue, and that made me lose any shred of enjoyment I’d managed to muster for the second half through the parts of the movie that were handled well.

In short, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” fell prey to what Star Wars suffered from in the prequel, and I feel awful saying that because I truly loved the first movie and wanted this sequel to be so good. Like Star Wars, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” relied too much on the momentum of fan adoration and cool visual effects. What the producers of such movies forget is that the enjoyable story was what first snared fans. The effects were the sweet icing on the cake, pretty and enjoyable, but if the actual cake taste stale, rubbery, or bland, the icing alone can’t support the flavor. Awesome visual effects are great as long as they go along with a great story. To be fair, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” was not as bad about this as the Star Wars prequels.

Also, to be fair, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” had some good moments. The romance, though brief, between Hiccup’s parents was done well, especially for a subplot romance. They did a good job with Toothless and his relationship with Hiccup’s  as well. I feel bad for Toothless. He’s such a lonely dragon, potentially being the very last of his kind and being forced into a position to betray Hiccup. The subplot between Hiccup and his father was also well done; though, I would have liked to see a much stronger and compelling result from it in how Hiccup handles the end. (Sorry for the vagueness there, but I really don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t seen the movie. Despite my frustrations with it, if you’re willing to ignore the plot holes, it’s still worth seeing.)

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” was clearly setting up a sequel. I’m guessing it’ll involve Toothless finding more of his own kind, but we’ll see. I hope the producers and writers will deliver a much more solid story next time. Until then, I’ll have to deal with the fact that the price of becoming a skilled writer is the inability to escape training and instinct when they insist that a story has gaping holes. Alas, the days of just sitting back and enjoying a story are long gone. When a story truly sweeps me away now and silences my internal writer’s voice, that’s when I know it was done well.

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