Monday, December 30, 2013

Trailer Woes: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Dreamworks just released the new trailer for How To Train Your Dragon 2 (note: the trailer includes a reveal that the creative team did not want made public, so watch that and read this at your own risk). I loved the original film, but I have some reservations after watching that trailer, and they're very much in the vein of storytelling wonkery. So I thought it'd be fun to discuss here.

First caveat: I was not looking forward to the original How To Train Your Dragon. The teaser trailer I saw (and which I am unable to locate on the YouTubes) looked incredibly stupid and the title is pretty stupid. But then I saw the movie and I was completely charmed. It is one of my favorite recent films. So while I'm going to complain about the trailer for the sequel, that doesn't mean I think or hope it will be bad. I'm just pointing out storytelling challenges that will need to be addressed.

Second caveat: there are lots of things in the trailer that I liked. I like the increase in scope, I like the way the characters have been aged into young-adulthood. But a trailer is designed to get you excited about a film, and talking about exciting things is a little boring. So I will be focusing on the negative. Entirely.

Storytelling 101

There are lots of ways to model a story, but here's the most basic: Someone we care about lands in a bad situation and has to fight their way out. Overcoming adversity is the simplest blueprint, and there are three factors in play.
  1. Sympathy - Do we care if the hero succeeds or fails?
  2. Agency - What does the hero choose to do and what tools are at their disposal?
  3. Liability - What obstacles are in the hero's way?
The success of a story (note: not a movie, per se, but a story) rests on maximizing these three factors. We want to see a proactive, sympathetic hero make hard choices and hard sacrifices to overcome terrific adversity. The original Dragon did this masterfully. Hiccup, our hero, is a terrible viking (liability) who wants to kill a dragon so he can finally fit in (sympathy). He takes initiative using the skills he does have (agency) to wound a dragon but realizes that he's not a killer (sympathy), so he decides to turn the dragon loose (agency) and confess to his father--the leader of the village (liability)--that he'll never achieve his dream (sympathy). His father puts him into dragon training anyway (liability) against his wishes (sympathy) and then he befriends the dragon he wounded (agency and sympathy and liability) and that's just Act I.

So let's break these down and compare what we see in the new trailer.

Sympathy

In general, we have be invested the hero's story success or failure. This is different from pure affability. We don't have to like the hero; we just have to care if they win or lose. Popular fiction is chock-full of unlikable heroes right now, from Dexter's Dexter Morgan to Breaking Bad's Walter White or the entire cast of Game of Thrones. But if you aren't invested, then no amount of action or intrigue is going to make the story exciting. A great example of this failure is in the movie Identity. It is revealed (spoiler alert) right before the final showdown that John Cusack's character isn't a real person--he's a construct in someone else's imagination. In fact, virtually everyone in the film is. The late introduction just sucked the air out of the climax. Why should I care if he lives or dies if he was never alive in the first place?

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

No problems at all, actually--nor should there be for a sequel. We already know and love Hiccup and Toothless and Astrid, so we'll be invested in them from the opening credit. In fact, baked-in sympathy for the hero is the main reason to do a sequel (or prequel) at all. Which is not to say that sequels don't screw this up. Monsters University turned a teddy bear and a lovable screw-up into douchebags. Or there was that time J. K. Rowling turned Harry Potter into an angsty brat. Or there's the mother-of-all screw-ups, Oz The Great And Powerful, in which Disney decided to base a movie on the least likable character from that franchise. The big reveal from The Wizard of Oz was that the wizard turned out to be a fraud--and an inept fraud, to boot. So let's base a movie on that schmuck.

(And before anyone mentions the Star Wars prequels, those were disappointing yes, but holy balls was Oz The Great And Powerful worse.)

Agency

Characters should be proactive. They should be capable. They should overcome weakness. Believe it or not, this is actually a huge problem in sequels. The hero has already overcome whatever their challenge was in the first story, and you can't just take them back to square one (unless you're writing Metroid, and even then it's sketchy). So the trick is to find new goals for the hero. This was handled expertly in The Dark Knight and clumsily in The Dark Knight Rises. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne wants to rid Gotham of crime. In The Dark Knight, he wants to retire. New movie, new goals. In The Dark Knight Rises he wants to... do what, exactly? Survive? Avert a pending apocalypse? He's almost entirely reactive, so while the rest of the movie was awesome, Bruce Wayne's character arc is genuinely underwhelming.

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

Man, destiny is getting thrown around a lot. Hiccup's father tells him that he is destined to protect their people. His mother, it turns out, is also adept at training dragons. So it seems that Hiccup was fated to become the first viking to ever ride a dragon. Does that bother me? It sure as hell does! First, it undermines his accomplishments in the first movie. In the original, Hiccup makes choices and has to deal with the consequences of those choices. It's no coincidence that both Hiccup and Stoick (his father) mark major turning points in their character arcs with the words "I did this." There's no fate involved, no predestination, no excellent breeding. Hiccup is just a confused kid who acts on principle and stumbles into an adventure because that's the only way to see it through. All this "destiny" talk cuts the legs out from under that. If Hiccup is fated to ride dragons, then it's so much less interesting that he ever did.

Liability

Achieving your goals requires hard work and sacrifices. This is another tricky one for sequels because, as with agency, the hero has already overcome quite a lot. The storyteller has to come up with new challenges that don't feel like a retread of the past (a la The Hangover Part II) and that don't raise the stakes to the point of ridiculousness (The Matrix sequels) or both (Spider-Man 3) or neither (Be Cool).

So how does the new Dragon trailer hold up?

Fair to middling. On the one hand, we get the "something big and terrible is coming" angle. On the other hand, they've taken away the big liability that should have held over from the first movie. Notably, Hiccup and Toothless are now able to fly independently. A major part of the first movie's story is that Hiccup and Toothless are incomplete without each other. Toothless can't fly without Hiccup controlling his artificial tail, and Hiccup is becoming a success in Dragon Training because of the time they spend together. This is brought home very late in the film when Hiccup loses his leg. Sacrifices are important. It's the reason we love Joss Whedon, even though he tortures us. It's also how the last sixty seconds of the last episode of 24's first season bought enough credibility to make cynics like me watch the second season. This, too, is very easy to do incorrectly. The classic trope is the introduction of a new character just so they can be killed for dramatic purposes later (examples abound, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a particularly egregious instance).

And I have a lot of trepidation about this in the new Dragon trailer. They've brought in someone from the past that will have immediate resonance with Hiccup despite not having been involved in his life for years. She is also far more powerful than Hiccup, which means in the grand scope of the universe of these films, she makes him unnecessary.

Yeah, I'm afraid they're going to kill off Hiccup's mother and it's going to feel really cheap when they do. We'll see. I'm still hopeful. But... yeah.

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