It’s really hard for me to watch movies these days. Really, just about any fictional narrative that’s on a screen. The problem is that I’m so used to analyzing my own stories, figuring out holes in the narratives, where plotting or characterization is weak, that I can’t turn that off when I watch a movie.
So, spoilers ahead for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World ahead. If you’ve not seen it and care about the ending, go no further. Just watch and listen to this great arrangement of music from the movie I’ll be discussing:
I’ve enjoyed this franchise of movies since my parents forced me to watch it. (Thanks, mom and dad! You have good taste!) I haven’t done much of the assorted tv shows, though my kids have gone through all of them more than once. I found that the first two movies had a lot of heart, and the soundtracks are amazing. (The third movie’s soundtrack has really grown on me as well.) I looked forward to the third entry of the franchise with cautious optimism.
I found the movie to have many multiple amazing moments. Hiccup and Astrid were fantastic. The courting sequences between Toothless and the Light Fury were magical. The dragons leaving broke the heart.
However, as a whole, I found the narrative lacking. Many of the side characters were there simply because they were in the other movies; they didn’t add anything to the plot. If they hadn’t been there, very little of the story would have changed. Hiccup’s flashbacks to his father did not seem to be the same character we met in the first movie; this wasn’t the same man who wanted to hunt down and destroy the nest of dragons. The villain had some cool moments, but didn’t “fit” the overall arc of the story nearly as well as earlier antagonists.
But the worst of it may have been what is a favorite scene for a lot of people.
So, at the end of the movie, for the good of the dragons, the people of Berk send them away to the hidden world. It’s a touching scene. Next we see Hiccup and Astrid’s wedding, a bittersweet celebration. And then we flash forward. Hiccup and Astrid take a boat to the entrance of the hidden world. Their two children are with them. They just want to see the dragons. They just want to know if their dear friends are still safe.
As the couple stares into the mist, they see Toothless, just barely.
The dragons are safe.
And that’s the moment the movie should have ended.
That’s not where the movie ended.
Instead, we are treated to an extended sequence of Toothless seeing the boat, nearly attacking his old friends, remembering who Hiccup is, and everyone getting to fly on dragons again.
It destroys the narrative.
Look, it feels good. Yay! We get a happy ending! But our American preoccupation with avoiding sorrow at any cost shreds the narrative.
Think about the sequence as it stands in the movie right now: Hiccup concludes, correctly, that if the dragons stay they will remain in great danger. He sends them away. It is painted as a great sacrifice for all involved, but a necessary one. We see a quick scene of a marriage ceremony. And then Hiccup and his dragon are reunited in the very next scene.
The sacrifice was worthless. There was no sacrifice. Everyone else had to sacrifice their friends, but not Hiccup! Well, Astrid gets to reunite with her dragon, too. Sure.
That reunion scene, as beautiful as it is, breaks the sacrifice. It ruins the poignancy of the sacrifice. It almost feels like the opposite of a jump-scare, or like all the fake “He’s dead!” moments of multiple tv shows when I was younger. Really? They’re going to kill of Splinter? Yeah, right. Spock killed Kirk? Pfffft. It’s momentary emotion that is shown to be faked in just a little bit.
What would I have preferred?
Hiccup and Astrid are in their boat at the edge of the hidden world. The mists part, and they barely see – yes. Toothless is there. He is safe.
And they turn, guiding their boat away. The sacrifice was worth it.
And then – after all the credits have rolled, perhaps show the reunion scene, if we must have it. But separate it. Make it come after the movie. Let the audience “sacrifice” their time by having to sit through all those credits. (Isn’t it terrible, sitting through all those names of the people who worked hard to give you such a wonderful experience?)
In short: In a narrative, if someone is going to make a sacrifice, the sacrifice has to be real. Not momentary. The first How to Train Your Dragon movie does this brilliantly. At the end, Hiccup is changed forever: He’s lost his foot. It’s a moment that is real and emotional and not cheapened by having us find out that, no, you can have your foot back, it’s all ok! If a person needs to give up a friendship, to give up a friend, don’t have them reunite two scenes later.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie, perhaps at this point you want to string me up because I’m taking away your happy moment. OK, we’re allowed to have different opinions.
But this is what I mean: by analyzing plots and character arcs and so on, it’s much harder for me to enjoy movies the same way so many other people do. For instance, I don’t love Marvel movies the way everyone else in the universe seems to. I didn’t cry when Spider-Man dies at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. I just sort of said, “Ok.” (There’s a great video here explaining what’s going on with the Marvel movies that I wholeheartedly agree with.)
But as I watch movies, or pretty much any narrative, I’m analyzing it. I have a hard time enjoying something on just a surface level any more.
On the other hand, when something is well done, I think I enjoy it all the more. (Dragon Prince, I’m looking at you! If you’ve not watched this amazing Netflix-exclusive show, go watch it now.)
So, if you want to ruin your enjoyment of movies… start really analyzing plot and character arcs. (The channel Just Write on Youtube can help you get started, if you’re honestly interested in it.) Or start writing and really thinking about your characters and plot. It’ll bleed over.
And then you can frown at things everyone else likes, just like me!