How to Train Your Dragon and the Question of the Animal

Let’s just get it out of the way right now that I really enjoyed How To Train Your Dragon. I’m always anxious about Dreamworks’ animated features – Kung Fu Panda was thoroughly enjoyable, the Shrek franchise is hit or miss, and the Madagascars are execrable – but Dragon was a pleasure. The characters are charming, the animation approaches Pixar-exquisite, the story, though slight, is entertaining, and the dragons are beautiful. The film is based on Cressida Cowell’s young reader series. Briefly, the story follows Hiccup (voiced by the adorable Jay Baruchel), a misfit Viking who bonds with a dragon and must convince his tribe – whose culture is centered around conflict with the dragons – that everything they know about the beasts is wrong.

I found the 3D to be well integrated into the story-telling, rather than a distraction that’s just grafted on. The technology is used skillfully to evoke the thrill and sheer ecstasy of flight, and also manages to convey the thrill of connection between the bodies of boy and dragon. But one of the most exciting moments of 3D really enhancing the experience of the film is actually one of the most subtle: the camera moves through a monochrome gray cloud of smoke and gradually individual flakes of ash resolve and move past the viewer. The effect is gorgeous and heightens the emotional power of the scene in a way that was really surprising and fresh. So kudos, Dreamworks.

(Beyond this point, there be Spoilers…)

There’s something, though, going on in the way the dragons and humans interact. The bonding between Hiccup and Toothless (a rare Night Fury dragon Hiccup half-accidentally brings down with a bolo launcher of his invention) is classic boy-meets-animal cinema, recalling Old Yeller, My Friend Flicka and any number of other Roddy McDowell vehicles from mid-century. The wounding of the dragon, the boy’s response to the animal’s helplessness and fear (which he admits mirrors his own), and their growing affection for each other as the boy helps the animal rehabilitate are all tropes of a genre we might call boy-animal romances. In this romance, there’s a sense of equality between the animal and the boy.

I think there’s something interesting happening here, that’s different from the older examples of the genre, because the boy uses technology to help the animal, literally grafting a machine onto the body of the animal in order to repair the injury caused by the other machine. Tech can harm or tech can help, it’s all in how it’s used.

I think the boy-animal romance is mostly fairly benign. I trace it’s origins to the anti-cruelty dog poems and animal autobiographies of the nineteenth century, and earlier to Locke’s anxiety that “the custom of tormenting and killing of beasts will, by degrees, harden [boys’] minds even towards men.” Hiccup’s alarm at having injured the beautiful creature compels him toward more compassionate treatment of the animal and a wider campaign of reform. It’s 19th c. sentimental reform packaged in 3D digital animation.

Where the question of the animal becomes more problematic is in the way the broader conflict is resolved. While on a flight with Toothless, Hiccup discovers where the main nest of the dragons lies, and learns an alarming secret: the relatively small dragons that raid his village are subject to a monstrous mountain-sized dragon that has them in thrall. When his father, Stoick, the village chieftain (voiced by Gerard Butler), learns of the location of the lair, he sets off to destroy the dragons and comes into conflict with the Master Dragon. Hiccup saves the day, destroys the Master using knowledge he gained through his intimacy with Toothless, and as a consequence liberates the smaller dragons from their dragon overlord. But the dragons are not free.

The film closes with Hiccup’s voice over, as he and his friends ride dragons among the crags and islands around his village. He declares that what makes his village special are the pets. Theorists of pet-making, in particular Yi Fu Tuan in his seminal Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets, find a dark impulse at the heart of pet-making. Tuan argues that the affection that produces the pet-making impulse is based in a compulsion to dominate the creature that is the object of human affection. According to Tuan,

“affection is not the opposite of dominance; rather it is dominance’s anodyne―it is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”

So, though Hiccup and his friends certainly feel affection for the dragons, the dragons have exchanged the malignant mastery of the overlord dragon for the benign mastery of their former enemies the Viking villagers. That this is framed explicitly in terms of pet-making negates any possibility of reading this relationship as symbiosis between equals. It’s as if the dragons are unable to survive without the intervention of a Master – dragon or human – and require subjugation not only for survival but for happiness. This uncomfortably echoes the paternalistic discourse of 19th c. racialism, but also reflects a wider notion in today’s culture about the status of animals in relation to humans.

The fantasy that animals cannot survive without human intervention – and may be happier when humans do intervene – has miserable consequences for many animals. I keep pets, and I fancy I love my cats and am loved by them and, like many other critics who keep pets, I find Tuan’s formulation of pet-making uncomfortable. But I recognize the truth that pet-keeping cannot exist without an inequality, indeed a dominance, of the animals compelled to be pets. That many pets, because of breeding that has resulted in morphological irregularities like hairlessness or the inability to birth offspring without caesarian section, cannot survive without the aid of humans, is a clear indicator that this fantasy has literally been inscribed onto the bodies of pets.

How to Train Your Dragon reinforces this fantasy without questioning its ethics. For all that I enjoyed the movie, I wish that, at the end, the dragons had flown off into the sunset.

Here’s the trailer:

Sources:

John Locke. “Some Thoughts Concerning Education.” (1693) Ruth W. Grant & Nathan Tarcov, editors. Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1996.
Yi-Fu Tuan. Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984,

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