The entertaining DreamWorks animated film, How To Train Your Dragon, by teaching children to regard all animals as friendly pets, to be loved and cuddled, is dangerous to both human and animals - as well as completely misinforming kids about the nature of animals' lives.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 27, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
The Dangerous Myth of Interspecies Love
I saw How To Train Your Dragon the other day (okay, so maybe I have a little too much time on my hands). As described in the New York Times , "the new 3-D feature from DreamWorks Animation - is a fairly standard one, exploring themes that are so familiar in the universe of all-ages cinema that they hardly need elaborating. The hero, a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), is a misfit adolescent who proves his mettle, pleases his hard-to-please father (Gerard Butler) and saves the world while learning important lessons and rattling off some wisecracks. Supporting characters include a spitfire love interest (America Ferrera), a gaggle of goofy friends (including the inevitable Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a crusty old mentor (Craig Ferguson) and a cute nonhuman sidekick."
My attention here is on the "cute nonhuman sidekick," a dragon reckoned to be highly dangerous to humans (many hundreds having been killed by his kind). Hiccup saves its life, the dragon returns the favor, and together they bring peace between the Vikings and the dragons - as well as genuinely loving one another. It turns out, the dragons are kind of like a persecuted minority group, who only attack and kill humans because humans have hunted and killed so many of them. If you just nuzzle their cheeks and pat their underbellies, they turn into puddles of loving jello, which only Hiccup among the stupid humans figures out (I'm not dealing here with how films represent fantasy self-images of the misfits who make them).
Since this is a cartoon, and dragons never existed (which is lost on every kid in the theater and - well - me; the humans in the film are, after all, remarkably human-like), perhaps I shouldn't quibble on the zoological misconceptions built into the script: the flocking of different "species" of dragons together; that all of them seem to be predators - thus occupying the same ecological niche without diversifying; and so on.
Most troubling is how dangerous the myths the film creates are for (a) animals, (b) humans. In the animal realm, Hiccup leads the Vikings to successfully defeat the murderous queen dragon, the feeding of whom is the source of all the dragons' attacks. When and what the other dragons eat is not treated, along with defecation, fornication, and - oh - procreation. Because if Hiccup kills the queen dragon, based on the analogy drawn in the film to a queen bee, then. . . .no more dragons.
But more concerning is the idea that humans should gently confront predators, tickle their cheeks, and they'll love you.
Indeed, forget predators. Recall the incident last year in upper-class Stamford, CT, when a 200-pound pet chimpanzee, Travis - who had been a TV star and sipped cocktails with his mistress and was given Xanax - ripped the face and fingers off of a woman visiting his owner? The results were disfigurement beyond permanent for the woman, and the assassination of Travis.
But I'm not so upset with the chimp's owner, so much as I am with the conception that chimpanzees are really like humans - after all, why wouldn't they want to be? In this view running naked in the woods, attacking and killing other animals - including chimpanzees - is simply an accident due to their unfortunate circumstance of living in a jungle rather than near New York City and a good clothes outlet. We shouldn't hold these misfortunes against them.
About ten years ago, I used to watch a TV program called Providence. From Wikipedia: "The show revolves around Dr. Sydney Hansen (played by Melina Kanakaredes), who left her glamorous job in Beverly Hills as a plastic surgeon for the rich, so she could return to her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, and be with her family. Sydney lives with her father Jim, brother Robbie, sister Joanie, and sister's baby Hannah in a large home in suburban Providence that also houses her father's veterinary clinic." (Did I mention I had too much free time?)
In one episode, a stray chimp shows up at dad's clinic (if you try Googling this episode, you are likely to be led instead to Travis' attack). Not only is the chimpanzee impossibly sensitive and well-behaved, he draws a picture of the symbol of the research center from which he has somehow been detached. Why, with the right computer, the chimp could have found the address and shown it to the stupid veterinarian (played by Mike Farrell, a famous political liberal formerly on M*A*S*H), who is so slow (slow enough to fill an hour of TV time) to realize what the animal is showing him.
Ah, those stupid humans - if only they listened better, there would be no more animal attacks, and we could all return to the Garden and live happily together. And, remember, aside from dogs and cats, this is about as close as children today are going to get to any real animals in order to learn about them.
By the way, other than that I enjoyed the movie, and its remarkable creation of an animated virtual reality. I caught myself thinking how great it would be to visit the Viking's island!