Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem With Sequels 2: Dragonfire!


Well, I promised you a sequel - though this isn't it, really. Think of it as a quick Asylum-style mockbuster.  A true sequel is in the works, rest assured, and it should be posted before George R.R. Martin finally finishes his last A Song of Fire and Ice novel.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent example of how hard it is to come up with a good story for a sequel once you've told the tale of how your protagonist becomes a hero. In the first film, scrawny-but-smart Viking lad Hiccup managed to tame and befriend a raiding dragon. In so doing, he managed to put an end to the sheep-raiding and won the respect of his macho father, chieftain Stoic. The outsider had found a role for himself within the community, and in so doing he solved its biggest problem, while simultaneously repairing the flaws in his most important personal relationship. Specifically, Hiccup and Stoic were always quarreling because they were so different and just didn't manage to communicate in the right way.

So what do you dofor an encore?


In HTTYD 2, writer-director Dean Deblois decides to resurrect the conflict between Hiccup and his father as the initial motor behind the conflict to drive the narrative. So what goes wrong this time? Stoick wants Hiccup to take his place as chieftain of the village. Hiccup responds by literally running away with Toothless, with whom he goes exploring in order to discover new islands. Hiccup doesn't want to be tied down and made responsible for the entire village, because... (ta daaaaa) he doesn't know who he is.

Well... that's a little weird, frankly.

Firstly, Stoick's gesture (which we don't see, only hear reported by Hiccup to his girlfriend Astrid) is one of love and respect. Exactly what Hiccup wanted the first time around. Now he gets it in the biggest way possible - and he runs off on the flimsiest of excuses. It might have made some sense if Hiccup said he didn't want the job because he can't bear the thought of being responsible for all the inhabitants of Berk, but...

... Hiccup has been nothing if not responsible throughout the first film. Though physically slight, he invents mechanical weapons/traps to defeat the raiding dragons (instead of, say, cowering in fear). He catches a dragon and overcomes ingrained prejudice, seeing it as an intelligent being rather than a dangerous monster. And he does his level best trying to convince his village that there is a better way to deal with the dragon problem - he even manages to get the other teenagers (at that point not yet his friends, but rather a bunch of bullies) to follow him in his quest. So being afraid of responsibility has never been one of Hiccup's flaws. Yet now, magically, it is.

This minor conflict cannot carry an entire animated movie, of course, so an external enemy needs to be found. And Hiccup's main personal problem has to be 'knowing who I am' - again, not really something present in the first film, but somewhat relatable as he is so clearly different from evereybody else in the village of Berk.

The external enemy is provided by a warlord, Drago Bloodfist, who has sworn to destroy all dragons, because dragons destroyed his village and cost him his arm. So of course he gathers an invincible army of - dragons. And he can control all dragons he encounters because he has a gargantuan Alpha Dragon under his spell (how he managed to tame this beast is never explained) - so his army keeps growing. Except he doesn't destroy dragons, of course, he just enslaves them. Which sort of defeats the purpose of his quest for vengeance, although it does put him up against the dragon-loving villagers of Berk.

Hiccup's approach of the Drago problem is to try and convince him that waging war against dragons isn't necessary, because men and dragons can live together in harmony. Both his dad and his mother (more about here in a little more than a jiffy) think this is the wrong approach - for Drago cannot be made to change. Idealistic Hiccup won't listen - but is proven wrong in the end. Drago is hellbent on revenge and this causes the biggest tragedy in the movie - Stoick dies when he takes a dragon's breath blast from Toothless, under the command of Drago, intended to kill Hiccup.

What's weird about this is that Hiccup is proven to be so clearly wrong - whereas in the first film, he was basically right all the time. Moreover, the way this story element is set up primes the audience to think that Hiccup is in the right again, and his parents are old-fashioned and narrow-minded. But it turns out that Hiccup is naive and stupid, and some people are  so far beyond redemption they need killing.

So basically Hiccup is changed quite fundamentally from the first film. He used to bring hope and a better way of life to his community, thanks to his ability to look at the world in a fresh way. Now he's become someone who shuns responsibility and whose immature naiveté brings about disaster. This is a sure symptom that Hiccup's character didn't really have anywhere to go change-wise, after the events of the first film. In order to get him into a transformation-story, they had to transform him first...


The other internal problem Hiccup is faced with is knowing who he really is. And to help him with this problem, he accidentally runs into his long-lost mother, Valka (clearly a relative of Munch's The Scream) . Just like Hiccup, she tried to convince the Vikings to stop fighting the dragons, with no success, however. Thought dead after being during a dragon-raid when Hiccup was a baby, she's actually spent the last twenty years on an island with dragons, wearing scary-looking armor and a polearm which makes her look like a dragon-lord - far more so than Drago. After Valka gest over the initial shock and delight of seeing her son again, she explains why she remained absent all these years - it was 'to keep her son safe'.

Errr... Safe from what, exactly?? From the dragons, which were raiding Berk all along? In any case, meeting her does help Hiccup realize who he is - he's just like his mother - but that doesn't really let us discover interesting or appealing new aspects of his personality. Indeed, his reaction to discovering his mother is still alive is tepid: he's slightly discomfited at first when she wants to be all motherly towards him, but apart from that it's apparently no big deal. It would have been so much more interesting to have Valka be a major antagonist in the movie (whether the main villain or a temporary antagonist who turns into an ally). Now it's just a huge missed opportunity.

Now, HTTYD2 isn't all bad - it's often spectacularly beautiful to look at, the story does become more engrossing in the second half of the second act (I thought the huge crisis setpiece was going to be the climax at first) and it's much bigger in scope than the first film. But the transformative arc of the protagonist really works against the narrative, this time around, rather than shaping it effectively as it did in the first instalment.

So what could have made this better? That's always a difficult question and obviously has a lot to do with personal taste. But I think it would have made for a stronger storyline - and a stronger transformative arc - if Hiccup and Berk were faced with an invincible external opponent much sooner in the story. An opponent against whom their usual way of tackling problems doesn't work. Both Hiccup and the society he lives in would have to change, adapt, to be able to overcome this new threat. There's your transformational arc, and you can build on what came before - look for the flaw in the new status quo and start building the conflict from there, rather than finding all sorts of weird new flaws to visit upon the protagonist which make little sense, contradict what went before, and frankly make him a far less appealing main character this time around.

If a second sequel is considered, Hiccup is now in an interesting new position, of course - as village chieftain, he will have a lot of new responsabilities and problems to tackle. But this also means he's no longer in the position of the child (no matter how capable or intelligent, he's still someone who is taken care of), but in the position of the adult. Which won't make it easy to come up with a storyline that will resonate with a audience of children. Unless, of course, they jump a generation, and turn Hiccup's eventual offspring into the new protagonist...

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