I've seen "How to Train Your Dragon" twice. My daughter loves it (the lead dragon reminds us of her cat). And I think it's pretty great too. (Note: Some pretty obvious spoilers heading your way.)
Perhaps I'm mellowing in my middle years, but I don't much mind what Entertainment Weekly calls the movie's "layer of age-of-terror allegory about the ignorance bred by jingoism." This refers to the fact that the Vikings in the film have been raised for seven generations to kill dragons: "It's what we do."
But the hero, Hiccup, an alienated, smart-mouthed teen, discovers that dragons are actually inclined to be lovable, sweet-tempered companions, if his fellow Vikings could only get over their own stubborn ignorance and prejudice and give the monsters a chance. It's all been a misunderstanding, and in the end, dragons and Vikings learn to love one another.
My long-standing complaint against this sort of story -- aside from it being a complete cliche -- is that it teaches kids there's no such thing as monsters. No, I'm not keen on telling kids that there are things that go bump in the night or beasts in their closet -- particularly when that means I have to spend half the night with a terrified kid in my bed.
But monsters once served an important purpose. The word's Latin and French roots meant a grave warning or omen. Monster stories once told us that evil exists and that we shouldn't assume all motives are good and kind.
Sure, kids today are taught to yell, "Stranger danger!" or some such when approached at the mall, but you won't find that sort of lesson in popular children's books and cartoons. And, let the record show, some of those strangers really are a horrific, soul-sickening danger and not merely misunderstood.
It was no trivial decision to populate "Sesame Street" with cuddly "monsters." Even Oscar the Grouch is really just a softy. And a few years ago, they even rewrote Cookie Monster's telos; he now says that cookies are merely a "sometimes food," causing some, like Stephen Colbert, to ask whether Cookie Monster had "abandoned the pro-cookie agenda."
I'm not so nostalgic as to believe that the world that produced the Grimm fairy tales is preferable to that which gave us "Monsters, Inc." But the improvement didn't come without drawbacks.
Meanness is no longer innate, it's the unfortunate side effect of being misunderstood, the forgivable self-defense mechanism of victims.
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