Friday, March 1, 2013

Ariel's Grotto and Berk's Cove, Part Two: Closet Drama within How to Train Your Dragon

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Our last blog post analyzed the Little Mermaid as closet drama, or as a work where characters hid a taboo side of themselves from the outside world.

The Little Mermaid, for all its fantastic music and interpretation of the female in the closet, was not a perfect movie. The Nostalgia Chick in her video review made the following legitimate criticisms:

1) Ariel gets what she wants and doesn't change at the end, at least not majorly enough to merit viewers' notice.

2) Ariel's desire is selfish because obtaining it hurts her family and endangers the entire sea. I have argued that her desire was to attain a truer form, but the desire was selfish regardless.

3) Her father is extremely sympathetic despite conflicting with Ariel, and has genuine reason to fear for her wanting to become human.

With these criticisms in mind, let us also consider the following: Dreamworks sustained a tradition of asking, "What if characters get what they want but then realize that they don't want it?" This tradition started with Shrek and continued with Over the HedgeFlushed Away, Megamind, and Monsters Vs. Aliens where heroes went on a journey to obtain a MacGuffin and then throw it away in favor of a new treasure, usually a love interest. Sometimes this tradition worked, and sometimes it didn't; one only has to look at the more predictable films to ask, "What was the point of the journey if they were going to throw away the MacGuffin anyway?" This would lead to a frustrated viewer to never watch the movie again or enjoy it.

How to Train Your Dragon addresses all of the above points with finesse, fantastic music, and effective characterization.

A Changed Viking
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Let us consider our main character Hiccup first, and his desires. In a world of brawny Vikings, Hiccup as a runt and a chief's son only wants to shoot down a dragon to please his father, become a hero, and get a girlfriend like Astrid, the local badass teen.

Let's admit, Hiccup's desire to shoot down a dragon is selfish and understandable at the same time, which is what makes him incredibly human. First, his dad thinks he's a disappointment and an embarrassment because Hiccup is small and brainy instead of big and brawny. Dad has a point when Hiccup can't  defend himself from dragons, pretends to swagger with muscles, and messes up the village defenses, but we also see that he has potential when his invention works and no one appreciates his genius. Also, he's so darn sarcastic and intelligent that this writer cannot help but fall for him. In fact, when watching the movie, I first wondered if he would become a mechanic in the war and let the machines do the work for him.

Then Hiccup's desire for glory and patriarchal approval dies. Not in the third act, when desire usually perishes, and not even in the second act. No, it happens in the first act, twenty minutes into the movie after taking time to ground the viewer in this barbarian setting. Hiccup finally shoots down a dragon but realizes that he cannot kill the yellow-eyed Night Fury. Then he sets it free and risks his life, but the Night Fury does not kill him in turn. Hiccup realizes then he doesn't want to kill dragons, even if he will never become a Viking. Much of the second act is Hiccup figuring out what he wants instead, and the filmmakers give him time to ponder the matter. Since watching a character think or monologue is boring, they use fast-paced dragon training and his eventual bonding with the Night Fury to help him think things through.

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What makes How to Train Your Dragon a closet drama? Why, the fact that as Hiccup has to hide an awkward desire: he does not want to kill dragons. He tries to tell his father such, and Dad listens as well as you'd expect:

Hiccup: Dad I don't want to kill dragons!
Stoick (Dad): Come on, yes you do.
Hiccup: Rephrase. Dad, I can't kill dragons!
Stoick: But you will kill dragons.

Stoick the Vast is established as who Hiccup SHOULD be by Berk standards: brawny, authoritative, and competent in brutal combat. In contrast to King Triton, who rarely gets an opportunity to manage government affairs onscreen, Stoick throws himself into the leadership position with furious fervor at the cost of neglecting his son emotionally. He was to worry about "feeding and entire village" through winter and Hiccup's antics distract him from that point. Stoick does care about Hiccup despite the boy messing up defenses against the dragon raids, and the film implies that his overprotectiveness motivates Hiccup to rebel further and seek glory on his own. We understand why Stoick would not change his mind, and that understanding makes him a more believable if imperfect character. The more we learn of dragons along with Hiccup, however, the more we know that Stoick's mind has to change to stop a war rather than win one or two battles.

In a war torn Viking village where one competent warrior makes a difference during a dragon raid, Hiccup's new desire becomes taboo and selfish. He internalizes the guilt that he was not "strong" enough to kill a Night Fury and that he's betraying his people by doing so. At the same time, no one considers Hiccup competent enough to commit treachery; even clever Astrid tells him to take the war seriously but merely assumes that he slacks off during class.

The cove in which the Night Fury hides becomes another physical closet, one which imprisons our playful dragon. In the cove, Hiccup doesn't have to carry an axe he can barely lift or even wear the oversized fur vest. Instead, he develops a riding outfit that accentuates his good parts as well as an increased understanding of dragons, one that ironically helps him master Dragon Training. The more Hiccup tries to stay in the background, the more his acquired skills from the cove make him stand out.

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In addition, the movie acknowledges that Hiccup's new desire to keep Toothless safe is selfish. We get this acknowledgement from a sensible character and love interest: Astrid. The film establishes her as smart and quick-thinking, if not amenable to change, and she becomes suspicious when Hiccup beats her in dragon training. We also see her soft side, however; Astrid finds out what Hiccup is hiding but understands after getting a terrifying and romantic ride on Toothless's back. When they discover the dragons' nest and the giant queen that they have to defeat, Astrid accuses Hiccup of not helping the Vikings to protect Toothless. Hiccup agrees, but we should worry. No one has smashed the cove the way Astrid threatened to, but closet drama demands that the destruction will happen and expose Hiccup's double life. When the destruction does happen, emotional casualties occur with the Vikings capturing Toothless and Stoick disowning his son.

Hiccup has to exit the closet with a flourish and regain Viking glory to make his desire selfless and save everyone from death. The Viking way means earning respect with strength, great feats, and successes. Hiccup tries to show that dragons are harmless .  . . by holding out his unarmed hand to a Monstrous Nightmare in a Kill Ring. The method works better, as we see, in the privacy of a few friends; Stoick is not impressed that Hiccup tried a peaceful way, since Hiccup shows submission instead of dominance. He only understands when seeing the Berk teens riding dragons and fighting the Green Death better than the landlocked Vikings can manage. If not for that competence in battle, then Stoick would not have rescued Hiccup and Toothless from drowning, allowing them to end the battle with decisive battle maneuvers. Although Hiccup does not seek glory by this point, he receives it in droves by risking his life and using science to save the village. He shows his father's capacity for leadership and quick thinking to outwit a larger enemy.


How to Train Your Dragon not only addressed all of The Little Mermaid's shortcomings but crafted a fantastic world that we could believe in with three-dimensional characters and a realistic conflict. Given that this movie features dragons, one normally would not associate the creatures with "realistic." This writer can assert that director Chris Sanders offered further hope for those in the closet, those struggling to reveal identities to a hostile, violent world.


Matt Anderson said...

I don't think "Closet Drama" means what you think it means. It's actually a script (television or stageplay) that is written with the intention that you don't act it out, but rather read it on your own. Similar to the concept of an armchair detective story. I'm not sure why it's called "closet" though, perhaps just because it's minimalist.

What you're talking about is more of a young-adult problem novel/coming of age story with a dash of queer theory in there. I get what you're saying, and I enjoyed your piece, and if you were unaware of the original term, then I can see the merit of this post, but your terminology has already been adopted by others.

Perhaps this needs a new term. I've been googling all over the place and researching through genre and literary convention to see if I can find a similar concept, but even after almost 5 hours of research and my CPU overheating, I can find nothing. But it was fun to do the research, I must admit.

Personally, I'd prefer a term akin to the "dragon's cave" a term I heard used to represent masculine psychology. Which is fitting for both it's guarded nature, and the theme of your post.

Oh! and one last thing. I was reading through this blog (perusing here and there) and I have to say, for a blog called 'a faceless author' you don't really have much fiction in here. It was kinda disappointing. I am always on the lookout for other writers, and the chance to sample their work.

Anyway, I'll be off now. If you enjoyed my mad 2-in-the-morning ramblings, you can find me at

Priya Sridhar said...

Matt: Thank you for commenting! Technically, you're right; the term "closet drama" tends to refer to dramas not meant to be performed, but I felt that the term could also apply to characters being within the closet and having their private space smashed (Count Basil, for example, which I did an essay on).

Thank you also for doing the research. Maybe I'll do "dragon's cave" when referring to male closet dramas.

I'm wary about publishing fiction on my blog because it may be considered self-publishing, but I'm happy to email some of my works to you if you'd like to read them.

Matt Anderson said...

Are you kidding? I'd LOVE to read them! You've got a cool style, and I'd be interested to see what that mind does when directed towards creation rather than analysis.

I can be e-mailed at: