How to Train Your Dragon is what James Cameron’s Avatar was trying to be. It’s a great movie filled with emotion, action and interesting characters. As a bonus, it has a subtle message that is so central to the film that it’s easy to miss the first few times you watch the movie. Avatar, on the other hand, tries very hard to make the audience care about boring characters and it throws tired action sequences on the screen every now and then that look more like they were directed by Michael Bay than the usually creative Cameron. Its message is hammered into the audience’s head so frequently and obviously that it gets a bit pretentious.
The funny thing is that both of these movies follow virtually the same path almost the whole way through, but they arrive at completely different conclusions. Plus, How to Train Your Dragon is a fun movie I could watch over and over and never get tired of, while Avatar is dull and difficult to sit through all the way to the end.
In How to Train Your Dragon, the main conflict is between a village of Vikings and a group of dragons. The dragons keep pillaging the Vikings so, to get the dragons to leave them alone, the Vikings strike back at their nest. A young Viking named Hiccup befriends a dragon instead of killing it. He names the dragon Toothless. Toothless’ tail wing is damaged so Hiccup builds a new one for him so they can fly together.
Eventually, Hiccup faces a turning point when he chooses the dragons over his people and is disowned by his father. However, he and some friends come to the rescue of the Vikings as they face the ultimate dragon. Hiccup destroys the beast by using what he learned from Toothless. In the process he loses one of his feet, so now he and Toothless truly need each other to be whole. The Vikings are reconciled with the dragons and they work together to build a better future for everyone. Isn’t that a great story? Now let’s compare it to Avatar.
In Avatar, the main conflict is between a group of humans and a group of aliens called the Navi. The humans have come to the aliens’ home world of Pandora to find a substance called Unobtainium, and it’s located under the Navi’s giant tree home. The humans want to get the Navi to move to a new home. A crippled marine named Jake Sully has his mind linked to an alien body (an avatar) so he can befriend the Navi and ask them to move.
Eventually, Sully faces a turning point when he chooses the Navi over his people and is forced to flee for his life. He leads an army of Navi to defend their home against the invading humans. They somehow win, even though they’re using bows, arrows and stones while the humans have advanced military equipment and probably even nuclear bombs. In the battle, Sully’s human body almost suffocates when it’s exposed to the harsh alien environment. He finds a way to transfer his spirit into his avatar so now he’s become fully alien. The Navi force the humans to leave Pandora at gunpoint and go back to living in harmony with nature, except that now they have guns. How did Avatar go so wrong? Let’s talk about the specific differences between these two films.
Teaching Not to Hurt
In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is unwilling to kill a dragon at the beginning. Despite all that he’s been taught about dragons, he still feels bad about attacking them for no reason. Later, he tries to teach this lesson to a girl named Astrid when she is about to attack Toothless. She thinks she’s defending herself against a deadly threat, but she is really just aggravating a tense situation. Toothless devises a plan to get her to stop using violence by scaring her half to death on a rough flight, but then being gentle after she stops being so stubborn. His plan promptly wins her over.
In Avatar, a female Navi named Neytiri has to teach Sully (in his avatar) not to kill animals, even to defend his life. She notes that everything is interconnected and so she can feel the pain of the creature he just wounded as it dies. As part of learning the Navi’s ways, Sully has to bond with a dragon. This bond will supposedly be for life, but it turns out to be much less permanent because he later leaves his dragon for a much fiercer one. This makes the dragons feel more like plot devices instead of meaningful characters like Toothless. This sends ironic messages since the Navi later have no problem killing humans and putting themselves, their dragons and other wildlife in danger of dying in a big attack on the humans rather than taking a more peaceful route.
Danger vs. Fake Danger
In its first minute, How to Train Your Dragon establishes the imminent danger every character faces. Dragons are ransacking the Vikings’ village, stealing their food and burning down buildings. Hiccup is in mortal danger and accidentally causing trouble at almost every turn. In the movie’s most thrilling sequence, Hiccup takes his first flight on Toothless. Soaring high into the air, Hiccup suddenly loses his grip and the two begin to fall out of control. As they fall, they have to communicate and think quick to avoid dying. Luckily, Hiccup is able to angle himself back onto Toothless and then steer through a maze of rocks. This scene is so exhilarating because the characters come so close to death and then use their brains to survive.
A major flaw in Avatar is the lack of danger. The moment Sully lands on planet Pandora, he’s told that it’s a hostile environment full of danger at every turn. But everything seems perfectly peaceful in the camp, and the rest of the planet appears to be mostly populated by beautiful flowers and nice-looking special effects. There are some predators, but even those don’t pose a threat because Sully and his friends only leave the base in avatars, so their real bodies are never at risk of being hurt. The film tries to make a big deal about Sully being stranded in the jungle one night. But the worst thing that could happen is his avatar could be destroyed, which would be inconvenient, but not life-threatening. Unlike Hiccup, Sully has nothing to fear if he falls off his dragon. Most of the danger and tension Avatar tries to create is fake, thanks to its cartoony special effects and fatal story flaw. Yes, How to Train Your Dragon is a 100-percent cartoon, but I would argue that makes it more realistic than Avatar because we’re not reminded every now and then that what we’re watching is a cartoon by seeing live-action footage mixed with it.
Learning New Ways
Both Hiccup and Sully have to learn a lot of new things to fit in with a new culture. Hiccup restores what he took away from Toothless and they both grow to care about each other in the process. It’s a beautiful relationship to see play out onscreen. They learn to communicate through their facial expressions, touch and voices. Hiccup is startled when, after spending so much time with dragons, he discovers, “Everything we know about you guys is wrong.” The Vikings don’t need to kill the dragons to get what they want. They just have to figure out that both they and the dragons want the same thing: to live in peace.
Sully struggles to learn a new language and culture among the Navi. Neytiri tutors him and conveniently falls in love with him to make sure he faces a dilemma about which side he’s really on. Unlike How to Train Your Dragon, Avatar forces the hero to take sides against his fellow humans right up to the end of the movie. One side is completely right and the other is completely wrong. There’s no gray area. In How to Train Your Dragon, both sides make mistakes and think they’re doing what’s best for themselves, but when they figure out what’s really going on they work together to solve the big problem. In Avatar, the humans are motivated purely by greed and there’s no reasoning with them. They have to get what they want at any cost so the only option is for the Navi to fight against them. If the humans were a little more complex, maybe we could understand both sides better and feel more of Sully’s conflict. But the movie instead opts to be totally one-sided and thus emotionally boring.
One of the best things in How to Train Your Dragon is the complex relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoick the Vast. Hiccup is almost nothing like Stoick. He’s short, skinny, socially awkward and inventive, while Stoick is tall, broad and a respected leader. He is also intelligent, but in different ways than Hiccup. He’s able to analyze situations and try to turn them to his advantage, which is probably how he worked his way into a leadership position. Hiccup, similarly, becomes a leader through his inventiveness and by being the only one with a plan at the end. Stoick isn’t a bad guy; he just doesn’t understand why the dragons are constantly attacking his village. It seems perfectly natural to defend his friends’ lives by killing dragons and trying to get them to move from their home.
One of the things that really falls flat in Avatar is the relationship between Sully and Colonel Miles Quaritch. They share a few conversations that don’t serve much purpose but to try to build conflict. Quaritch could have been an interesting character if the film had made him at least partly conflicted about his role in unfairly treating the Navi. Instead, he’s just presented as an irrational character who blindly moves the plot forward by being arrogant and unreasonable. He’s not interesting and neither is his interaction with Sully. The villains in Avatar are little more than stereotypes of evil business and military. This is too bad because James Cameron is usually good at delivering strong motivations for his characters and at least some qualities that make them memorable and interesting. Private Vasquez is much more interesting than Trudy Chacon, Ellen Ripley is far more memorable than Grace, and Corporal Hicks is more complex than Sully’s bland character.
Prejudice Is Bad
How to Train Your Dragon is effective at getting its message across because it doesn’t present humans as irredeemably evil. They kill dragons not because they’re bloodthirsty or seeking power, but because they’re defending their families and it’s what they’ve always been taught to do. A smart thing the film does is to have its setting in a time and culture we’re unfamiliar with instead of taking our present culture to a negative extreme, like in Avatar. We can see ourselves in the characters because they’re human like us, but we don’t have to be hit over the head with the idea that this is what we are right now and we have to change or else.
By putting humans in such a bad light, Avatar alienates its audience and presents a position that is unfair and uninteresting. Perhaps if the film had set up a Star Trek-like dilemma in which the substance they were looking for had the power to save millions of lives, it would have been more interesting. They tried that with Star Trek: Insurrection, which turned out to be a lackluster film in the series, but I’m sure in James Cameron’s capable hands it could be put to good use. But no, the villains are only motivated by greed. That’s boring. That means they are just being set up to eventually lose rather than coming to an understanding with the aliens that they are both at least partially wrong.
The Bottom Line
How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie because it tells a strong story that just so happens to have a great moral at its core. Avatar is not a good movie because it spends all its time trying to send a message instead of letting that message grow organically from an engaging story.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
The photos from Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon are the copyright of their respective owners.