Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon -- fitting in, being yourself

Directors: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders, 2010. (PG) 

The latest animated film from Dreamworks, the creators of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda continues to improve their resume. Based on the first book in a series by Cressida Cowell, a graduate of Keble College, Oxford University (my alma mater), they have condensed the story into one that entertains even if the story is familiar.

The movie begins with an introductory narration from Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) setting the scene:
This is Berk. It's twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It's located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. My village. In a word? Sturdy, and it's been here for seven generations, but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunset. The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have. . .  dragons!
There follows a furious prologue as the fire-breathing dragons attack the village, carrying off sheep and other animals. While the burly Vikings hurry off to battle with these creatures, Hiccup is confined to the blacksmith's shop, working alongside the one-armed and one-legged Gobber (voice of Craig Ferguson).

Hiccup, you see, is a scrawny lad, barely a twig compared to these highly muscled brawn. Of course his father Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), is a man-mountain and leader of the tribe. He has killed many a dragon, but his son can barely lift a helmet, let alone a sword or an axe. In this Viking life, to kill a dragon is the entry-price into manhood.

After the frenetic pace and frenzy of this opening battle, the camerawork settles down and the story starts to move forward. The village warriors set sail with Stoick to find the dragons' lair leaving Hiccup and the other teens to begin dragon school, an academy to learn "on-the-job" how to kill dragons.

An early scene highlights one of the key themes of the film. Gobber looks at Hiccup and criticizes him, all of him. There is nothing about him that he sees as meritorious. And so Hiccup wants desperately to be allowed to go to dragon school, despite his obvious limitations. Ultimately, he wants to be able to kill a dragon so that he can fit in. A misfit, his skills include machine making but not sword-wielding. Even his accent, an American dialect, is in stark contrast to the Scottish-accented Vikings (why they have this accent is never explained).

How often do we try to fit in with those around us? Even if it is clear we don't really belong, there is often an irresistible draw that compels us. When we don't fit in, when we are like Hiccup, the world looks at us as different. And too often the world mocks us and belittles us, making us wish the spotlight were turned onto someone else, or turned off altogether.

Stoick's parental approach to Hiccup is illuminating. While his boy is a misfit, he is embarrassed. When his boy seemingly proves superior to others in dragon-taming, he is proud. When Hiccup challenges his preconceived notions, he cannot accept this clear attack on this values and worldview and disowns him. His expectations are based on performance.

Performance-based love and acceptance is anathema to positive parenting. If God were to adopt this approach, none of us would be recipients of his love. When we set overly high expectations for our children, as Stoick did for Hiccup, we set them up for failure and disappointment. But, we can learn from our heavenly father. He offers us unconditional love, a love not based on our performance, which is never good enough, but that is based on the perfect performance of his son, Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30). Thoughwe can never meet God's expectations of a perfect life, Jesus did. He lived a holy life, he walked a perfect path in his earthly life (Matt. 5:17). Then he went to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, not his own (2 Cor. 5:21). In him we find redemption (Eph. 1:7) and strength for living. In him we find acceptance and true love.

Misfit notwithstanding, Hiccup's mechanistic moxie bags him a dragon. And not just any dragon, a never-before-seen "Night Fury". When he finds it, both are scared of the other. And, despite his apparent desire to kill a dragon and become one with the other Vikings, he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, they form a symbiotic relationship and Hiccup discovers truths that turn his world upside down.

This is still a kid's movie, and somewhat formulaic. There is the requisite love interest, in the form of Astrid (voice of America Ferrera), a female warrior-wannabe. There are the other teenage students, a mix of nerds and jocks. And there is the requisite "kids save the day" finale.

Yet the animation is delightful, with attention to detail, and the two main characters captivating. "Toothless", the Night Fury dragon, is well-drawn and his eyes convey a depth of emotion without a word being spoken. He clearly has intelligence and power, but can bring it under control. Hiccup has intelligence and creativity, if not power, and together they can be better than alone.

The main theme, though, focuses on being yourself. When Hiccup tries to be like his father and the rest of the tribe, he fails badly. When he finally accepts who he is, with all his strengths and foibles, he is finally able to prove himself and earn his mettle.

God has made each of us unique. No two of us are exactly alike. We need not try hard to be someone or something we are not. That is simply a recipe for frustration and failure. Rather, we must accept the gifts and talents that God has graced us with (1 Cor. 12:4). Our limitations offer the liberating freedom to focus elsewhere. If we are not tall, powerful and athletic, then it is foolish to try to be a successful and professional sportsman. If we are not musically adept, look elsewhere. Maybe we are like Hiccup, endowed with a heart of mercy and compassion and can touch others. Maybe we are mechanically handy like him, and can forge a career in engineering. The point is to find out what differentiates us from others and celebrate this rather than ignoring it. We must hone our strengths rather than improve our weaknesses.

Our society applauds dragon-slayers. If we find a dragon in our vocation, perhaps we need to embrace and train it, making it a teacher to us, instead of trying to kill it. The apostle Paul had a dragon, a thorn that pained and wounded him. He called out to God to kill this dragon (2 Cor. 12:7-9) but was denied. Instead, God used this to teach Paul a lesson about grace. In our weakness, he is made strong. What is your dragon? And how will you respond to it? Kill it or train it? Perhaps it is worth humbly letting it teach you to be yourself in dependence on our God.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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