Animated Life Lesson #1: Understanding

Understanding (noun): an agreement regulating joint activity or settling differences; a state of cooperative or mutually tolerant relations between people

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In honor of the new season airing on Netflix this week, our first animated life lesson- understanding-will be discussed through its extensive portrayal in Dragons: Race to the Edge.

How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are some of my favorite movies of all time.  The stories are epic, the characters are complex and interesting, and there are a ton of unique and amazing dragons.  The world building is fantastic, the animation is well done, and the soundtrack is one I can listen to over and over again.  (This one and this one are especially good for keeping me motivated when I’m running.)  Furthermore, the themes of friendship, sacrifice, and bravery are all thoroughly explored, giving children and adults alike characters to cheer for as they explore the dangers of their world and come into their roles as dragon riders.

Because I am so in love with the movies, I was ecstatic to learn that there is an animated series for this franchise.  DreamWorks Dragons is set between the first and second films and serves as a narrative bridge between the two theatrical releases.  The first two seasons, subtitled Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk, respectively, aired on Cartoon Network, and while these seasons see the discovery of new dragons and new dangers, explore the complications of the new friendship between Vikings and dragons, and establish plenty of new character development, it’s the newest incarnation of the show that really shines, easily on par with the films in terms of story and visuals. 

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Dragons: Race to the Edge is produced by Netflix, and the fact that Netflix was willing to take it over says something about the greatness of the show and the franchise.  Netflix has a good record (at least so far) of producing well-written and entertaining original content, and Race to the Edge is certainly no exception. This newest offering in the series is set just a year before HtTYD 2, and Hiccup, Astrid, and the other riders have certainly changed over the past few years.

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But at their core, they remain their same original Viking selves.  There was no attempt to drastically redesign any of the main cast—or any of the secondary cast, either—to gain more viewers, and that makes the show feel like a true continuation of the films.  Just as importantly, the feelings of friendship between the riders are still intact and still realistic, with the riders spending as much time bickering with one another as they do fighting the true villains.  More importantly, though, the friendships between the riders and their dragons are stronger than ever.

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Although there are a lot of things to love about these films and the show, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the real heart of this whole story.  It’s more than a boy-and-his-dog type of story; Hiccup and Toothless are as close as brothers, with each willing to step into the line of fire to save the other.  They’ve saved each other’s lives countless times, and the love between the two of them is beautiful to see.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, their relationship is still just as magical as it was at the beginning, when Hiccup chose to defy his entire way of life to save a dangerous dragon and in return earned a lifelong friend.  If not for the feeling of sameness—if not for Hiccup being able to understand Toothless’s feelings of fear and helplessness in that pivotal moment—things wouldn’t have changed.  Sure, Hiccup would’ve been praised by his tribe, but that would’ve only changed things for him during his time.  Instead, his desire to understand dragons changed the lives of every Viking in his tribe for now and for forever.  It was Hiccup’s willingness to see things from a different point of view and to try to do things in a new way that changed his entire world and earned him the undying loyalty of one of the world’s fiercest dragons.

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Hiccup’s drive to learn about dragons as more than just the enemy was unprecedented for a Viking.  All knowledge of dragons up to that point was based on how best to defeat them without getting eaten or burned to a crisp.  But Hiccup wanted to understand dragons for the unique and fascinating creatures they truly are.  Maybe it was because he was ostracized by his village, maybe it was because he was nosy, maybe it was a bit of both, but Hiccup’s actions demonstrated a maturity and a wisdom beyond his years, and it has certainly turned out well for him.

In RttE, Hiccup continues to encounter new types of dragons, and although his first purpose is always to ensure the dragon’s safety, the second is to learn about the creature.  He still hasn’t lost that desire to learn about dragons, and it’s become second nature to study new dragons as thoroughly as possible; this allows Hiccup and the other riders to protect themselves from any potential threats but also allows them to help the dragons to not only survive everything from other dragon attacks to hunters and natural disasters, but to thrive.  The riders build structures, relocate threats, and generally care for the dragons they encounter, and in doing so, they continue to see that humans and dragons aren’t all that different.

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Sure, they’re physically different, and they’re capable of drastically different things, but all they really want out of life is safety and companionship.  It’s easy to see these similarities between the riders and their own dragons, but it also becomes apparent as the riders become more accustomed to dealing with wild dragons, who are typically only causing trouble because their home or their loved ones are threatened.  It’s interesting that it takes a group of teenagers to understand that dragons aren’t the enemy when generations of Vikings refused to see the truth, and now that same group of teenagers is essentially reinventing the culture.  Because of their understanding of the dragons, Hiccup and the other riders have not only cemented their place in Viking history, they’ve managed to create peace after centuries of fighting.

Years of warfare have also created an interesting dynamic within Viking society that calls for another kind of understanding: an understanding of physical disability. Dragon attacks are vicious, and there are numerous Vikings who are shown with missing limbs as a result.  Gobber, as an example, is missing both a hand and a leg as the result of battles with dragons, and yet he’s one of their fiercest warriors.  Bucket and Mulch are likewise missing hands, yet they’re successful fishers and farmers.  Toothless loses part of his tail thanks to his capture at the hands of Hiccup, but once he’s able to fly again with Hiccup’s help, he’s just as dangerous as ever, perhaps even more so because now he has someone to look out for him and help him perform more amazing attacks.  And of course, Hiccup himself has lost part of a leg, the price he paid for defeating the Red Death.

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Since Hiccup’s loss comes at the end of the first film, the impact is not well-explored at the time.  However, it’s clear that the loss is seen by the other Vikings as a badge of honor, and Hiccup even jokes about being able to redesign a better replacement leg than the one Gobber has made for him.  It’s a drastic change from most stories about physical disability, where the loss of a limb or of function is seen as tragic and, to some degree, problematic.  But to the Vikings, it’s just a fact of life.  Having been injured in a dragon attack is par for the course, and it’s great that these characters get to be ‘normal’ without having to conform to the notions of society.  For the Vikings, being disabled is normal, and their society reflects that.

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We get to see Hiccup’s reaction to the loss of his leg throughout the seasons of the television show.  Not only has he upgraded Gobber’s replacement, he’s specifically designed his leg to work with the attachment on Toothless’s tail, and on top of that, he eventually modifies it to be a multipurpose prosthetic, with the ability to switch between a walking version and a riding version that fits better with Toothless’s tail, as well as a bladed version for walking on ice.  Although I’m sure he’s not glad that he lost his leg, Hiccup has been able to use his ingenuity to design a prosthetic that works for him just as well as his real leg ever did.  Probably better, in fact, since there are numerous times throughout the show where Hiccup’s metal leg manages to save his life, either directly or through using it as a weapon.  Likewise, Gobber has adapted a number of different attachments for his hand, allowing him to switch out tools and weapons to make his work easier.  It’s quite fun, actually, to see the different limbs these two can design and create, and it allows them to deal with their missing limbs in ways that are both useful and creative.

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Hiccup’s creativity doesn’t just apply to his work, it also applies to how he lives his daily life and how he interacts with his friends.  The other riders are all fun and individual characters, even the twins, who are rarely separated, and Hiccup finds creative ways for each of them to utilize their strengths and their hobbies to work as a team.  There’s an implicit understanding between each of the riders that they have different strengths and weaknesses, and while they may not always like the reality of their abilities, they always trust Hiccup to lead them in such a way that everyone plays an important role.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t grumbling or teasing about anyone’s abilities.  Snotlout in particular spends a fair amount of time making fun of Fishlegs for being a nerd about new dragons, but he’s always (begrudgingly) grateful for Fishlegs’s knowledge when they’re under attack.  Snotlout also seems to always find ways to bring up Hiccup’s missing leg, whether it be through bad puns or corrections on comments, such as when Astrid implored the other riders to put themselves in Hiccup’s shoes, to which Snotlout corrected:

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Even though it’s annoying, the comments are nothing more than teasing between friends who truly understand and appreciate one another.  Everyone realizes that they wouldn’t even be dragon riders without Hiccup, just as everyone realizes that they wouldn’t have become such successful riders if they weren’t able to look past each other’s differences and learn to work as a team.  There’s an understanding that even though they may irritate, aggravate, and enrage one another from time to time, they’re still a team, and they couldn’t do all the amazing and helpful things they do if they didn’t have each other.  It’s being able to understand that everyone has their flaws just as they have their gifts that allows the riders to function so well together and be the people who save both humans and dragons.

Dragons: Race to the Edge is easily one of the best animated shows offered today.  There’s enough stupid humor, exciting dragons, and amazing flight scenes to keep children interested, while adults will enjoy the deeper themes and messages along with the exciting dragons and amazing flight scenes.  This show, along with the other seasons of Dragons serve as the perfect bridge between the first and second films, seamlessly continuing the story and introducing new characters and dragons that let us explore the world more than the movies would allow.  As I mentioned before, the show is great from a visual standpoint, as close to the films as any television show I’ve ever seen, and the score manages to incorporate the main themes from the film while also introducing lovely new pieces.  What’s more, much of the main cast lent their voices to the show, including Jay Baruchel as Hiccup and America Ferrera as Astrid, which further lends to the authenticity of the series.  But it’s truly the fact that the show has managed to capture the truly capture the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, that undefinable understanding between a boy and his dragon, that makes the series as successful as the films.  There may be new adventures, new enemies, and new friends, but it’s this connection at the core of the story that makes it perfect.

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Check out season 4 of Dragons: Race to the Edge, premiering on Netflix this Friday!


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