Disability in Animation: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Series: Disability in Children’s Animation

Spoiler Warnings: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Trigger/Content Warnings: Loss of limbs. Also, I won’t be talking about it here, but the movie deals with parental abandonment.

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Image Description: How to Train your Dragon theatrical poster. An ensemble shot of Hiccup and his friends, as well as their dragons.

Yesterday I went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is currently in theaters.

I loved it. There were some things about the portrayal of female characters, good and bad, which I want to talk about, but I’m going to save that for a future post. There were also some race things (the villain had significantly darker skin), but again, future post, perhaps once the movie comes out on DVD.

For now, I’m going to talk a little bit about how this franchise has continued to handle disability. But first, a quick, spoiler-free review:

This movie is gorgeous. I am far from an expert on animation, but you could see the pores on people’s faces. They aged their characters beautifully, and the relationships, the romantic ones especially, feel very genuine. The story was interesting, but between the dragons, the people, and the environments, I was really blown away by the visuals. There are some really cool female characters, although they could definitely stand to have more to do. And of course, the protagonist is disabled. For the most part they handle disability well, although there is some ableism surrounding mental disability. The movie also had some problems with racism (the only dark-skinned character in the movie is a villain). Still, I highly recommend that you go see this movie, while it’s still in theaters if possible. Not only is it a great movie which looks amazing on the big screen, but you’ll be supporting one of the few franchises with a disabled protagonist.

Now, let’s look closer at the handling of disabilities (spoilers below):

The movie stays pretty true to form in how it handles disability. Gothi makes sounds, which is new, but she still does not speak. Gobber has what I think is a new attachment, a spiky weapon which may be modeled after one of the dragon’s tails. Gobber is also more involved in the action than in the first movie. He rides dragons, and is part of the battles.

Hiccup has a new prosthetic, which makes sense: he’s grown quite a bit, and he did say at the end of the last movie that he had some ideas to improve it. We get some nice shots of it, too–the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that its protagonist is disabled.

There’s also a new disabled character introduced, Drago Bludvist.

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Drago lost his left arm in a dragon attack. He has an armored prosthetic, which he keeps covered with his cloak.

Disabled villains are typically hugely ableist, whether the disability is a part of their motivation or not.  That said, I would say this movie gets a little bit of a pass on that, because Drago is one of several disabled characters. Drago does lose his prosthetic during battle, though, which leans toward an implication that only good people deserve prosthetics. Not so good.

What they definitely don’t get a pass on is the fact that he is described as a “madman”. Ruthless, unreasonable, without conscience: these are his chief characteristics. That is a huge problem. Mentally ill people are frequently stereotyped as being violent, unreasonable, as having no morals or conscience, and as being dangerous. In fact, mentally ill people are significantly more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to commit violent acts.

Mental illness is not your shortcut to motivation. Not to mention, they don’t need a shortcut. They have a perfectly good motivation for him. This motivation isn’t revealed until the end, but they don’t need to describe him as “mad” in the meantime. They could stick to describing him as ruthless and violent, that would be fine. But instead they describe him as “mad”, and play into the societal associations between mental illness and violence.

Because of this, I only give this movie 3.5  out of 5 on disability representation, a pretty big drop from before. (I’m still figuring out my scoring system, I’m afraid. For now I’m sticking with 3.5 for this one). It still does some really great things with normalizing physical disability, and its ableism toward mental illness doesn’t erase that…but the good things don’t erase the ableism, either.

I’d still recommend this movie. Just because a movie does some things wrong doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, or that it doesn’t do some things right. But it is important to consume with a critical eye.

Tomorrow I will be concluding this series by taking a look at the trends I’ve seen in animated children’s movies, and why disability representation is so important.

Images from How to Train Your Dragon wiki.

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