Some months ago, I wrote a little bit about how women are portrayed in fiction and the fact that the Strong Female Character is a pretty hollow attempt at providing better characterization for women in many stories. The catalyst for that post was an article that discusses something called “Trinity Syndrome” after the female lead from The Matrix in which a female character is introduced with a variety of exciting and engaging traits only to provide a benchmark for the male protagonist to surpass by the story’s end, when the formerly impressive woman gets incapacitated in some way and needs to be bailed out by the hero. It’s very “the student has become the master” sort of logic, though it also often carries with it the implication that demonstrating superior skill entitles the protagonist to the woman’s love and admiration.
Anyhow, the character who centers the discussion in that article that I linked above (you should definitely go read it if you haven’t before; it offers a great discussion of some characters from recent movies that really don’t live up to their potential) is Valka, the long lost mother of Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Now, seeing as Netflix put this movie up a couple weeks ago and I’m enjoying being on a much needed Spring Break, I decided to watch it and see what’s going on.
I suppose I should preface all this by saying that I saw the first How to Train Your Dragon several years ago, and my impression of it was that it was a movie that was better than it had a right to be (I’ve come to set a particularly low bar for Dreamworks Animation movies because most of what that studio produced in the ’00s always felt like poor attempts to recapture what worked about the first Shrek movie while failing to recognize what exactly it was that worked in the first place). It was also built around a world of Vikings and dragons, which mirrored a D&D campaign I was fooling around with at the time, so that resonated pretty well. Given my enjoyment of the first one, I expected good things from the second.
And it didn’t disappoint.
Perhaps the one thing that I’m most impressed with this movie is that it’s matured with its original audience. The first film was a pretty lighthearted story about a boy making a new friend and teaching his community that they could live a better way, and the second takes that end point and extrapolates a scenario where all of Berk is living harmoniously with dragons, and the whole community, though small and relatively isolated, is happier for it before introducing the new complicating factor of others from the larger world who don’t share Hiccup’s enlightened views on human-dragon relations. The stakes are higher, Hiccup is facing new responsibilities (there’s a subplot where he’s trying to decide what to do about his father asking him to take over as chief), and the villain is much scarier than before (Drago is admittedly a flat villain, but he’s suitably threatening). With the introduction of Valka, the movie’s plot doesn’t shy away from exploring how Hiccup and his father Stoick react to her appearance (I admit, I got a little teary-eyed during the scene where Stoick sings to Valka as he’s trying to ask her to come back to Berk again). Really, there are a lot of things that I hugely enjoyed, and much of the most satisfying character development can be traced back to Valka.
Valka really doesn’t do anything after Drago catches up to everyone and attacks the dragon sanctuary. She’s ineffectual in the fight, even though we’re supposed to buy that she’s been resisting Drago’s forces by herself for decades, and the focus slams back onto Hiccup once things get serious (one development I absolutely didn’t expect was Stoick’s death; while characters can and do die in kids’ movies, it’s not an extremely common trope, and its use here struck me as pretty effective, particularly after all the work that was put into establishing how Stoick, Valka, and Hiccup were hoping to start over as a family), and then Valka’s barely seen except when she gives a “you can do it” speech to Hiccup before everyone sets off for the final battle. It’s disappointing after getting to really like Valka in the middle section of the movie, and all I can hope is that if Dreamworks makes a third film, they’ll figure out something interesting for Valka to do.
Besides Valka (who I freely admit was the character I was most interested in seeing, given what I’d read about her), everyone else is likeable enough. Early on, when Hiccup is worrying over the prospect of being chief with his girlfriend Astrid, I had the distinct impression that the resolution of that subplot should involve Astrid taking over as chief since she’s characterized as much more of a traditional Viking’s Viking (she carries around a greataxe!) and she and Hiccup are betrothed anyhow. That the movie instead went with Hiccup becoming chief because reasons (besides loyalty, I’m really not sure what other qualities Hiccup demonstrates that would make him a good leader) was disappointing.
On the bright side, I think some of the best moments actually came from the comedy surrounding Ruffnut’s infatuation with the dragon trapper Eret son of Eret. Like the rest of Hiccup’s gang of friends, Ruffnut is a pretty one note background character, but the movie’s insistence on colluding with her female gaze as she repeatedly ogles Eret’s muscles was delightful. I wish more films would do more things like that to subvert the male gaze, particularly in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s at the expense of the woman.
All in all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a really satisfying movie, even with its flawed presentation of Valka. I’d watch it again.