A Post-#MeToo Protagonist for All of Us
In our family we celebrate great stories about friendship, love, tenderness, and intimacy. Female protagonists are common in such stories — Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls, Ramona Quimby, the Dashwood sisters, the Marsh girls.
Male protagonists in such stories are rare. But then there’s Hiccup and the motley band of Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Hiccup is cast as the unlikely hero in this trilogy of movies, loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s series of books. He is quiet. He is small. He has no interest in becoming like his Nordic chieftain father, an omnipresent theme in the first two movies. But in this third installation, those duties fall squarely on his shoulders, and he must figure out how to lead his friends and fellow Vikings and to save the dragons they all love so much. And as much as this film is about death-defying, dragon-borne ariels and fighting a bad guy with a decided Putin world view and accent, it is deeply rooted in Hiccup’s relationships, the cornerstone of the trilogy.
And here’s the thing about Hiccup — he is the hero our boys need to see. He is the antidote to the toxic vision of masculinity presented by so much of the entertainment industry. He loves deeply. He is confused. He is sensitive and soft and shy and not a natural leader and those things don’t just magically disappear when he becomes the “hero.” He tenderly cares for dragons AND enjoys a rollicking ride through the sky on the back of Toothless, the sweetest-looking dragon ever.
He is a good friend, not in the superficial joshing, ribbing, teasing way, but when Toothless can’t fly alone with a new-found potential mate, Hiccup fixes Toothless’ tail, intuitively addressing the needs of his friend who can’t ask for such things. Not only does Hiccup see that Toothless may need a mate, but he also sees why that would be important.
Yes, Hiccup is surrounded by other young-adult Vikings who are less noble and more gross than he is. There are plenty of potty jokes for the elementary-school crowd. And there is some teasing about love and marriage — but never about the bond between friends or Vikings or dragons. And this is a subtle but important difference. In Berk, friendships are cherished, sacred.
And then there is Astrid.
First, let me note that this movie brilliantly dispenses with the silly, awkward courtship rituals of so many animated movies — the ones where either the male looks a buffoon or the female swoons or rejects him and then gives in. The first two movies both had a bit of that. But in this third installment that notion of romance is replaced instead by several charming sequences neatly drawn from Planet Earth 2 as Toothless and his mate preen and prance looking oh so much like Wilson’s bird of paradise — a fact not lost on Bambino who loves the entire Planet Earth series. The mating ritual is at once silly and sweet — and carefully observed by Hiccup from afar with a scientist’s curiosity and a friend’s loving help.
Back to the humans… having removed the awkward silliness of human courtship, that animal-documentary device lends a seriousness to the relationship between Astrid and Hiccup which is rare in children’s movies. Astrid isn’t just a love-interest. She isn’t just a friend. She is a partner, and without giving away too much, the unequivocal message comes from Hiccup’s bad-ass mother, Valka, who notes that Hiccup and Astrid must partner and work together — to lead. This isn’t a “girls can’t do it without boys” message — it is about the strength of partnerships and teamwork. Astrid and Hiccup. Together.
But perhaps the most powerful vision of masculinity comes in the snapshots of fatherhood — flashbacks between Hiccup and his now-deceased dad — and a vision from the future as well. Visions of tenderness, warmth, love, and compassion. The picture of fatherhood in this film is not of a son unable to live up to his dad. It is of the warmth and love between father and son, a passing down of tradition without threat or fear. Tears shed. Hands held. Deep hugs. And a father at once shielding his children — and awakening a tenderness in them. This is a change from the last two movies, and I think this installation is better for it.
I hope none of this is unintentional. I hope it marks a new chapter in movie-making. After all, America Ferrera, the voice of Astrid in this series, is one of the leaders of the TIME’S UP movement. And with little fanfare TJ Miller was replaced following several recent scandals. Hollywood has a lot of work to do. But there is a deep sensitivity in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World which gives me hope. I pray we see more protagonists like Hiccup for our child — and yours.
We are picky about the movies we welcome into our home — and even more so about the movies we see at a theater. But How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was storytelling worth our time and our money.
PS: Now curious about the mating rituals of Wilson’s bird of paradise? Here you go…