Two films came out recently that prominently feature people (or something more or less like people) riding dragons (or something more or less like dragons). One was Avatar and the other was How to Train your Dragon. I saw both of these films in movie theatres, in all their stunning large screen stereoscopic 3D glory.
Of the two, Avatar is the one that has gotten the most hype, has broken box office records, and is being touted as the tour de force that has raised the bar on special effects in Hollywood films. And yet, thinking back on my experience of these two films, I am struck by how much more vivid and delighted is my memory of the cartoon boy riding the cartoon dragon than the far more realistically rendered blue Na’vi riding the dragon-like Pandoran banshee.
It’s not that the flying sequences in Avatar are anything less than thrilling, exhilarating or heart poundingly exciting. They are indeed all that and more. It’s more that they are, from a psychological perspective, mere illustrative detail, meant to establish and ground the abstract concept of Na’vi as the ultimate native culture in harmony with nature. From a story-telling perspective, the flying of dragons is a philosophical and political point made flesh — albeit very blue flesh.
In contrast, for the boy in How to Train your Dragon the act of flying the dragon is an expression of love. The entire narrative of the film is based on a kind of star-crossed love story between the boy and the dragon. I don’t mean “love” in the narrow sense of a sexual romance, but in the sense of the love that grows between two kindred souls whose connection with each other seems destined, like the love between Huck and Jim, Butch and Sundance, Hope and Crosby, Kirk and Spock, Laurel and Hardy, Woody and Buzz, Rocky and Bullwinkle.
You know from the outset that these are two souls who together create something far greater than would either one without the other, and the reason you watch is to see them realize this for themselves as the narrative unfolds.
When we see Jake Sully ride the banshee, we are just seeing one aspect of a character finding himself — or perhaps one of many aspects of Jake’s growing romantic bond with his female counterpart Neytiri.
But when we experience Hiccup ride Toothless, we are experiencing the very embodiment of the emotional arc of the story of How to Train your Dragon.
I’ll take that experience any time.