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Strong Men, Strong Women – A Retroactive Review of How to Train Your Dragon

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Yes, readers, I am coming back to the subject of strong women. One cannot fail to notice how modern movies show us women who out-men the men these days. They practically hit viewers in the face with this bull-headed idea, and it has to stop.

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At first glance, Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon appears to fit this mold of “women are better than men.” Astrid, the heroine of the film and its sequel, begins the movie as the ultimate example of a girl who out-boy’s the boys. She is strong, fast, smart, and the top of her class, which is mostly made up of boys.

Now her competition is hardly the greatest; it is, in fact, a perfect example of the way Femi-Nazis want men to be perceived, by themselves and by women. Of the four boys in her class, Astrid is physically as strong as the boys. Fishlegs is a large boy and therefore relatively strong, but he is also fearful. This makes him absolutely no competition for Astrid in the arena, as he spends most of his time there running away from the dragon of the day.

Snotlout is strong, but he is so self-centered it is amazing he can even walk in a straight line. Tuffnut not only has less muscle tone than these two characters, he has lost whatever brains he had by constantly fighting with his twin sister, Ruffnut. In one of the films intriguing reversals, however, she is also no real opposition for Astrid. Ruffnut is almost as moronic as her twin brother – and in How to Train You Dragon 2, he actually shows more intelligence than she does on a couple of occasions.

As for the hero of the piece, Hiccup can barely lift an axe. He is scrawny, weak, and definitely no physical competition for Astrid, whom he adores from afar because she will not give him the time of day. So of all the young Viking warriors to whom the audience is introduced, Astrid is presented as the best, the brightest, and the strongest of the lot.Typical SFC, right?

Nope.

Things begin to change for Astrid when Hiccup secretly starts working with the Night Fury he shot down.In caring for Toothless, Hiccup learns about dragon habits, finding their weaknesses as he studies him. After a while, he outstrips Astrid in the training center by defeating the dragons sent against the trainees via his newfound knowledge. Everyone mistakes this for a sudden turn in Hicccup’s physical prowess rather than realizing he is winning these engagements through anatomical knowledge.

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Only Astrid sees how he is actually beating the dragons – and thereby her – in the training center. And she does not like it. She finally follows and confronts Hiccup in the dell where he has kept Toothless hidden, demanding answers about his sudden rise to prominence over her. This leads to her discovery of Hiccup’s secret friendship with the Night Fury.

Furious at Hiccup, but happy to be back at the top of her class, Astrid races off to tell the villagers what he has done.

Hiccup manages to derail that attempt by chasing her down on Toothless and begging her to let him explain what he has learned. Reluctantly, Astrid agrees to at least let him get her out of the tree he and the dragon set her in.

But Toothless goes further than Hiccup wanted him to go by getting Astrid to apologize for abusing his rider. When she finally does this, the dragon relents and provides her with her first real ride through the sky.

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This ride uses some of the best CGI in the film, and it is clear that Astrid is as enchanted with the beauty of the scene as the audience is. Hiccup and Toothless fly her through the clouds while the sun sets, then bring her up to see the Aurora Borealis bloom in the starry sky. Overwhelmed by the beauty, Astrid lets down the guard she has placed around her heart and wraps her arms around Hiccup’s waist – a gesture he is quick to note, though he says nothing about it.

When discussing the character, however, the critics – along with many fans and probably the actors themselves – focus not on Astrid’s reaction to this scene but on her physical skills, strength, and stamina. What most of the critics will never admit is that until Toothless gives her the first dragon ride of her life, Astrid has been living a false persona in order to get ahead.

Think about it, readers. Astrid is surrounded by fierce, resilient Vikings who have been waging a war with a local nest of dragons for three centuries. In order to fit into this world, Astrid suppresses her natural sweetness and love for beauty, focusing instead on becoming a strong, ferocious warrior in order to be the future dragon-slaying heroine of Berk.

Hiccup, who is the butt of the village jokes because he physically cannot handle a weapon, has no such recourse in his day-to-day life. He has to rely on his wits, on what he builds, to make any mark on the village – and most of those marks are more damaging than helpful. The village mantra is not eloquently spoken, but it essentially reads thus: to be accepted by the society of Berk, one has to toe the popular line. This means that the men and women of the island have to be fierce warriors with no time for, or inclination toward, study and learning.

Astrid follows this prescription from the start, more so than any of the other village children. She practices harder than they do to learn combat techniques and criticizes herself harshly when she makes the slightest mistake.

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On the other hand, though he tries time and again to fit in with the stereotype perpetuated and expected by his elders – especially his father – Hiccup cannot suppress his natural curiosity and sense of wonder. His skinny frame, lack of muscle tone, and reliance on machines to do what the other Vikings can do by hand is not accepted by the adults. His curiosity, his willingness to study and learn so he can invent a gadget to help him better his life, also marks him as different – a difference the villagers of Berk cannot accept until the end of the film.

In this way the Island of Berk in the movie serves as a microcosm of modern society. Though it is oft proclaimed that children should “be themselves” and pursue what makes them happy, there are no end of adults in official positions who will cheerfully slap down any signs of individuality and personal gifts the children under their supposed care demonstrate. Whether they realize it or not, they do this in order to maintain an expected status quo and the mantra that “girls rule while boys drool.”

Boys are routinely told through modern media that they are stupid, boorish, and disgusting. And if they are smarter than average, they mask their intelligence to avoid persecution. In How to Train Your Dragon, Snotlout exemplifies disgusting and boorish behavior with his constant passes at Astrid (who duly ignores his attempts to snare her for a date).

Tuffnut practically embodies the modern idea of the stupidity of boys. He regularly boasts about his strength, courage, and intelligence, only to be proved lacking in all of the above before the final battle. He hates learning about anything that does not involve pranking or fighting, disdains reading and other academic pursuits the way germophobes fear bacteria.

Fishlegs, meanwhile, is the trite smart boy. Bursting with facts he has memorized from the Book of Dragons, he is painted as the stereotypical geek overflowing with knowledge but who is, at the same time, short on courage. With competition like this, Astrid has no problem being the most likely to succeed at the Dragon Slaying Academy of Berk.

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Hiccup is the only boy to defy the Berkian – and therefore the modern – trope. By studying Toothless in order to help him fly again, Hiccup puts his knowledge to good use in the arena. He “defeats” dragon after dragon without killing them, and he does it so well that he unintentionally outshines all the other students for the first time in his life.

When Astrid discovers the source of his new skills and fame, Hiccup knows he has to convince her to change her mind, or Toothless will be killed. After their initial hard ride, Astrid admits Hiccup is correct about how amazing Toothless is. The three are then inadvertently drawn along with the swarm of dragons taking food to the Red Death, learning the secret of the dragon attacks as well as the location of the dragon’s nest. Upon their return, Hiccup is forced to stand up to Astrid when she asks if he is seriously prepared to forego ending the dragon war in order to protect Toothless.

In this moment, Astrid and Hiccup finally break down the barriers that Berkian society has forced on the two of them. Hiccup proves he is man enough to protect his friend at personal cost to himself. Meanwhile, Astrid takes on the proper role of the supportive friend who also happens to be developing romantic feelings for the boy she once scorned.

The scene shows the two discovering who they truly are, though perhaps only one recognizes the change in self-perception. Hiccup, distracted with his fear for Toothless’ safety and stopping a war which has lasted for three centuries, does not see in himself what Astrid now sees. Though he is skinny and not physically strong, Hiccup is strong in his will to protect his friend and to end the war. He does not know how he can do it, but he does intend to do it. While he knows it will cost him the acceptance he thought he longed for his whole life, his determination and courage do not waver in the face of that apparent loss.

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Recognizing this about him, Astrid’s hardened heart at last thaws out. Presented with a young man who says what he means and has the strength of will to see it out, she realizes that she has no need to show the perfect warrior front to him. Hiccup is already a warrior, having broken custom to discover something wonderful in the dragons all the other Vikings fear as menaces. So Astrid stops behaving like a violent-tempered Viking shieldmaiden and acts like what she really is: a girl longing for a true friend who will accept her for herself, not for her skills or her looks.

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This relationship between the two characters is expanded upon in the second film. In this story, it is Astrid who makes the mistake that leads to a deadly confrontation with the movie’s antagonist, Drago Bludvist. Her pride in Hiccup’s skills as a dragon master blinds her to the very real danger facing her and her friends. At the same time, Hiccup himself undergoes a metamorphosis as he learns that he cannot run from his responsibilities because, sooner or later, they will catch up with him and demand his attention. He becomes a “manly man” in How to Train Your Dragon 2, as Astrid embraces her femininity without losing her warrior skills.

The architects of modern society are trying desperately to prevent the children and youth of today from discovering this self-knowledge, readers. They are working hard to confuse them; they are telling boys that they must either act effeminately or behave like barbarians in order to be accepted by society. Girls are routinely told that they can do anything, that they are as good as the boys, even when it becomes manifestly obvious that they are not and cannot be a boy.

This is hurting today’s youth. The boys are growing up, avoiding college and prospective jobs and are avoiding fatherhood at an even more alarming rate. Meanwhile, the girls must juggle their natural instincts toward beauty, marriage, and motherhood with the idea that they must be something else. As a result, more young women are thrust into college, there to take courses of dubious merit, and then trying to enter a labor force with no room for expansion. At the same time more and more young men are retreating from that front because they are being precluded from doing so.

The modern world needs more Hiccups and Astrids, readers. It needs men and women who will challenge and destroy the sacred, golden cows of modern society. The world needs women who realize they will be happier when they embrace their womanhood; it needs men who will defy the stereotype that has been forced upon them. It needs men of courage, men of honor and dignity, men who recognize and love women for who they are, not for what they can or cannot do.

A woman loses nothing by being a mother, just as a man loses nothing by being a father. If anything, the roles grant them more power, prestige, and wonder than any other job in life….if only they are willing to see that truth.

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Sing: Of Hope and Optimism

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Borg.com is a really good blog to follow, readers. They keep track of all the latest news on comics, films, and television shows on this site. It was through them that I found The Librarians and Star Wars Rebels. They post trailers for upcoming movies and can be relied upon for detailed information on most of the big franchises we see everywhere today. It was through them that I learned about Sing, the animated film from the same company which gave us Despicable Me one through three.

Illumination Entertainment hit the big time with Despicable Me for most people. They followed it up with The Secret Life of Pets and Sing, as well as some other films I probably do not know about.

I have seen The Secret Life of Pets. It is long on laughs and short on story. However, Sing had a totally different effect on me. There are plenty of laughs in this film, but there is also a story to chew on here. Secret Life of Pets really was not anything to write home about, unfortunately; it was cute, but not great.

Sing was good. It is not up there with Despicable Me and its sequels, but it is above Secret Life of Pets and leagues above Disney’s Zootopia, a film that was long on amazing animation and had just a drop of story in it. That film was a flash in the pan, sadly.

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Anyway, Sing takes place in a world full of anthropomorphic, talking animals, much like Zootopia. Specifically, it takes place somewhere in California, in a city that is like a mash-up of L.A. and San Fran, according to the movie’s creators. The lead character is a koala named Buster Moon, who owns a dilapidated stage theater. Buster fell in love with the stage and the showmanship required to run it when he was six. His father worked for thirty years to earn the money for Buster to buy the theater after this.

But things have not been going so well for Buster. None of the shows he has tried to produce have been a hit with the general populace, tickets have not been selling, and the bank is calling to tell him to settle his accounts or they will take the theater.

Desperate to save his theater, Buster hits upon the idea of holding a singing competition. He barely has enough money and “goods” for a prize for the winner, but he goes ahead with this plan anyway. The one kink in the arrangement is that his secretary has an accident and the flyers advertising his competition subsequently say the grand prize is $100,000 dollars, not $1,000.

Well, this brings everybody and his brother to audition for the competition. Buster picks out a motley crew from this crowd: Johnny, the son of a thief; Rosita, a stay-at-home mom of twenty-five piglets; Gunter, a European pig who is an enthusiastic singer and dancer; Mike, a street musician with slick paws; Ash, a porcupine rock star wannabe, and Meena, an elephant with a great voice who is too shy to sing in public.

Well, by and by, Buster finds out about his secretary’s mistake. But he still moves ahead with the competition, asking a famous former star of his theater’s golden days to sponsor the concert’s prize. But things go down the drain when Mike’s attempt to cheat mobster bears backfires in his face. The theater is destroyed and Buster briefly goes into an emotional tailspin as a result.

Now I will not spoil the ending for you, readers. But one of the things that I keep running across is a description of Buster by those who have seen Sing. They keep calling him “optimistic.”

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Normally, I do not take issue with this word. Optimistic, to me, generally just means looking for the silver lining in a situation you really wish you were not in. Nothing wrong with that; with very few exceptions, we can all find a little grace in undesirable circumstances. It could be in a ray of sunshine that slips across our faces at the right moment, a call from an old friend we have not heard from in a while, or good entertainment that lifts our spirits. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

No, my problem is when people use false optimism in place of the genuine theological – and therefore real – virtue of hope. This is actually Buster’s problem throughout most of the film. He is an optimistic little fella, sure. But he relies on an optimism founded on his self-belief as though it is hope. These two things are miles apart.

Optimism will give you a reason to smile when life hits you hard, and if it is founded in hope, then you are in good straits. But optimism founded on a belief in yourself and your own powers will not – cannot – keep you going. Buster is ready to quit after his theater is destroyed. His optimism, his belief in his ability to save his property, fails after the theater’s collapse. The negative press he receives after this only deepens his depression. He has no more hope after he loses what he was trying to save.

In contrast, none of Buster’s singing competitors are truly hopeful or even optimistic. They all have very good reasons not to be. Johnny’s father is a criminal who lands up in jail when his son does not show up with the getaway car in time. His dad practically disowns him after this. Rosita is a mom of twenty-five who thinks she has lost her ability to perform, if not her ability to sing, while Ash’s boyfriend dumps her and invites another girl into their shared apartment. That is one surefire way to kill optimism, I can tell you!

Mike is a con artist who wants a big score which will get him off the streets. He is in the competition, as he is in life, to win what he thinks is ultimate happiness – the perfect materialistic life. He repeatedly mocks the others, especially Rosita and Meena, who has no optimism because she believes her stage fright will make her look foolish in front of everyone. After the theater is destroyed and their dreams appear to disintegrate with it, none of the competition’s cast is optimistic.

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Even Gunter does not have optimism. You might think that is silly for me to say, once you see him; the guy almost never has a frown on his face. He is harder to put down than Buster.

And that, readers, is the point of the matter. Gunter does not have a misplaced optimism founded on himself and his abilities. What he has is hope. Hope is a fragile little virtue we treat like a penny. It is an easy word to bandy about but it has a meaning far deeper and richer than its four letters, just as a penny is worth more than its size would suggest. Hope is anticipation of something; the longing for some good and the trust that you will receive what you desire as long as you stay the course.

Buster goes through the movie thinking that he alone can save his theater. And when his last ditch scheme unravels, destroying his prized theater in the process, his optimism is shattered. He put his faith not in Someone else, not in his friends, not in the performers he gave hope to, but in himself. And let’s face it, readers; we disappoint ourselves more often than not. We are not all-perfect or all-powerful. Too many of us think we are, alas, but the fact is that none of us are God.

Now, this trust in his own powers does not make Buster a bad guy. The proof of this is that, although he sets up the competition and competitors in order to serve his own purposes, Buster gives most of his singers what they have lacked up to this point. He has given them hope by recognizing their talents and giving them a chance to show them off.

This is proved when his cast of performers – minus Mike – comes knocking on Buster’s door to try and encourage him to put the show on somewhere else. To Buster, the competition was meant to save his theater. It was not about his reputation or the money; he just wanted to keep that old theater alive in a world that had lost its taste for the art of the stage.

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To Johnny, however, the competition meant a chance to do what he has always enjoyed. It was a chance to be who he wanted to be, not who his father and the other members of his gang assumed he wanted to be. For Rosita, the competition was a chance to prove that she had not lost her touch; that she could still dance and sing, and thereby impress the people who took her for granted.

For Ash, the competition meant achieving her dream of becoming a rock star. Gunter’s dream of performing live and hamming up his enjoyment of singing and dancing could finally come true on this stage. And all Meena wanted was to get over her shyness so she could finally sing without fear.

Buster did not see any of that because he was too focused on what he wanted. That was not an evil thing, just a selfish mistake he made out of pure stubbornness. It is only when he happens to overhear Meena singing where no one can see her that Buster gains perspective. Hearing Meena sing, he realizes that she really does have talent. He remembers all the other singers and realizes that they do, in fact, have talent as well. He comes to understand that they deserve a chance to perform, and that he has a duty as a showman to see to it that they get that chance.

Meena’s singing is what gives Buster hope. His optimism is replaced with genuine hope as he remembers that he did not want the theater simply for the theater. He wanted it because of his desire to be a showman; to be the talent scout who would bring scenes of “wonder and magic” to an audience, just as he had been given a sense of “wonder and magic” by the performances at the theater when he was a child.

And let me tell you, Buster delivers on this by the end of the film. Not only does he deliver, but he even gets what he wanted in the end; to be the manager of the theater his father helped him buy. By helping his friends achieve their dreams, Buster regains his theater along with his love of showmanship.

Sing is a good story for this reason. It is a story about real hope, not false optimism. It also reminds us that “wonder and magic” are important to daily life; Sing urges the audience to keep practicing the arts we love that brighten the world and give people hope. For without a sense of the “wonder and magic” of the world, we quickly come to see everything through either Buster’s or Mike’s filtered lens. We either fall for false hope masked as “optimism,” which claims we can get whatever we want through our own power, or we chase after a phantom “perfect happiness” in this world. The latter will never be found in this universe of space and time, and the former only leads to misery.   I will take hope and wonder over these two things any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Well, readers, this is my opinion of Illumination Entertainment’s Sing. But you do not need to take my word on how good this film is. Borrow or buy it and watch it yourself. And do not forget to Sing whenever you feel like it!

Jane Austen’s Persuasion

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I enjoy the version of Pride and Prejudice where Colin Firth plays Mr. Darcy, and there are two versions of Sense and Sensibility which I appreciate. I do not know who plays who in my version of Emma, but I like that one immensely. But the version that Gwyneth Paltrow is in is terrible, just terrible – in my ‘umble opinion.

One of the things these three stories have in common is their lead players’ sharp wit. The ladies in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma all have razor tongues that cut as deeply as swords. Mr. Knightly and Mr. Darcy are not to be outdone by their ladies and have wits as acerbic as the girls’. Whoever suspected that verbal fencing matches could be so much fun? Nothing we have today is this cutting, this incisive, readers. It was truly an art of the time and these women were as adept at it as any samurai with his sword.

So when I saw Persuasion, I expected Anne Elliot to be just as quick-tongued as Jane Austen’s other heroines. But as the film progressed, I became disappointed, then confounded, then content. Why?

Anne is quick-witted, but she does not bite during the course of Persuasion. She hardly even barks. The middle of three daughters, Anne fell in love at a young age with a young officer named Frederic Wentworth (played by Cíaran Hinds). He proposed to her when she was nineteen but, since his financial prospects did not look good, Anne was persuaded not to marry him. She refused his offer despite the fact that she did in fact love him and he loved her.

It has been eight years since this occurred by the time Persuasion starts. Anne has been taking care of her foppish father and bratty older sister, Elizabeth, for these eight years, making her an old maid by the standards of the times. Her younger sister, Mary, is married to a Mr. Charles Musgrove and has two boys, who are unmanaged. Mary is always complaining of aches and pains, mostly so she can get her own way. She is so annoying that her husband takes every opportunity to go outdoors and hunt with his friends. Between the two of them it is not hard to see why the children are so undisciplined.

We learn at the beginning of the film that Anne’s foppish father has all but bankrupted the family, forcing him, Anne, and her older sister to “retrench.” In order to pay their debts they have to move to Bath from their country manor, which they must also rent to raise funds. A friend of Anne’s mother, the widowed Lady Russell, is the one who convinces Sir Walter Elliot that he has to move. Otherwise he would have to be dragged from the place by his heels.

Her father, Elizabeth and her companion, Mrs. Clay, depart for Bath. Poor Anne is left to prepare the house for rent, pack what the family “requires,” and then go see Mary, who says she is sick again. Neither her father nor her sister suggest they want anyone else to help with the work. They certainly do not volunteer their own time. Instead it is always Anne’s job to handle the practical matters. Elizabeth seems to hold Anne in complete contempt and there is little love lost between the sisters. The family estate, Kellynch Hall, is to be rented out to an admiral in the British Navy – whose wife happens to be the sister of Captain Frederic Wentworth.

Staying with her sister and in-laws at Upper Cross as the tenants move in, Anne ends up listening to the family’s vehement complaints about each other. Most of the Musgroves’ complaints about Mary are more than justified. Mary is as self-centered and snobby as Elizabeth, but she has less control and wit, holding Anne more as her personal lady-in-waiting than as a despicable housemaid. She is petty but on a lower level. Anne’s the only white sheep in the whole family since her mother’s death.

The best thing about Anne’s stay in Upper Cross is that it means she will not have to see Wentworth, who is coming to visit his sister.

So when her old flame turns up one day unannounced, Anne is thrilled, but also frightened. Wentworth feels somewhat the same. He still loves her, but he also does not want to get close to her. She turned him down once and he does not expect her to change her mind now. Nor does Anne expect him to propose to her again, given that she turned him down so long ago.

As the film progresses, we see Anne come out of her shell. Slowly, she breaks away from her empty-headed father and his fascination with power and fashion, as well as her bratty big sister’s control. She becomes a woman who can make her own decisions, standing firm when others demand she change her mind or do something they want her to do or believe is best for her. Eventually, she tells the man who still loves her that she does love him in return and that she will marry him.

The best scene in the whole film is also the only time we see Anne and Wentworth kiss. As a circus pulls into town Anne and her future husband clasp hands, with the camera taking special care to hover over their hands before this happens. While the world, represented by the circus, rattles on down the street and turns right, Anne and her beloved walk in the opposite direction. They are arm in arm as they converse quietly together.

That is all I am revealing about the film, readers. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, especially the scene I described above. Persuasion was written, I believe, when Jane Austen was at the top of her craft. Her first stories are marvelous tales, full of action, intrigue, and wit with teeth. But Persuasion is the cream of the crop. And I do not say that lightly!

If you can, readers, find Persuasion and view it. It is a chick flick, but it is a chick flick with style. Not many can claim that and get away with it.

See ya around!

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