Where have all the orphans gone? In the grand tradition of children’s literature (and therefore, children’s films – now more than ever, it is inconceivable that there could be one without the other), the first obstacle any writer needs to vault over, sidestep or obliterate is the matter of the parents.
By its very nature, the child – our hero, our guide – needs to be alone, at least to begin with. Take The Wizard of Oz’s (1939) Dorothy Gale for example: she lives on the flat expanses of Kansas with her Aunt and Uncle who no doubt love her, care for her…but Dorothy’s loneliness is palpable. She’s a child, and at the mercy of forces as indiscriminate as the ‘twister’ that plucks her and the house from its foundations, tosses her over the rainbow. In Alice in Wonderland, a little girl tumbles down the rabbit-hole on a sultry, dull day by the river – again, alone – arrives in a world unknown, ripe with danger, always without help (and frequently full of confusion).
However, things are changing; Hollywood has forever altered the children’s story. How can you have an orphan as protagonist when there is a wealth of parental dysfunction clichés to be picked over? Thanks to Harry Potter, Disney-Pixar, the Twilight saga et al, film producers have woken up to the value (monetary, in most cases) of telling stories to a broad demographic, potentially encompassing everyone from grandchildren to grandparents.
Dreamworks are perhaps the most obvious example of a studio broadening the appeal of its children’s stories to draw the adult market. Newly released this week on DVD is How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
, based on an eloquent, delicate series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell. But any originality or wit in Cowell’s source material has been jettisoned, this film merely another iteration of the Shrek (2001)
or Kung Fu Panda (2008)
story…the love interest, the misfit winning the day, the standard “Happily Ever After” finale etc.
There is of course nothing wrong with a ‘Happily Ever After” scenario. It takes just as much courage to end on a happy note as one more serious – especially with the current tendency towards darker children’s cinema (“dark” seemingly equalling “serious” in Hollywood). However, does the happy ending have to be – as in the case of How to Train Your Dragon – reached via such predictable stepping stones?
The film’s central character is a young Viking boy named Hiccup, an individual alienated in his own skin, who is deemed too weak to play a part in the aggressive, male-centric Nordic village where he lives (his father at one point claiming, “You are not my son”’. We are then introduced to the ‘Other’; a misunderstood dragon, falsely perceived as a highly dangerous beast that can vaporise anything with a blast of purple flame (though in truth, that’s exactly what he can do), who mirrors the sense of alienation felt by poor Hiccup. Ultimately, all these tropes are familiar.
As a character, Hiccup – like previous Dreamworks creations Shrek, Donkey, Kung Fu Panda’s Po – is a composite rather than a truly memorable children’s character. Hiccup is neurotic, philosophical and (importantly) all too aware of his obvious position as a potential revolutionary. In short – Hiccup is an ‘adult in children’s clothing’; yet another victim of the “Dreamworks disease” that embodies its film’s role models with an unnatural, hyper-maturity. Am I being too cynical? Potentially – but only because these films are also themselves profoundly cynical and deeply patronising of children and their desire to change the world.