Sunday, October 24, 2010

Could Cartoon Dragons Win the War on Terror?

Hear me out.

The four of us recently watched the CG animated film How to Train Your Dragon, having heard a lot of good things about it, and a good time was had by all.  This is not just a movie for kids or families, either; if you enjoyed the first Shrek or slightly older films like The Iron Giant, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

It's a great little fantasy tale set on an island populated by Scots-accented vikings and their American-accented children.  As the narrator, Hiccup, explains, it's a nice enough place, except for the repeated dragon attacks.  Now, fighting off legendary beasts is the bread and butter of any self respecting viking, but Hiccup doesn't have a lot of brawn, so he tries to contribute by creating traps and weapons he hopes will help defend his village and redeem him in the eyes of his father.

Right away you have all the components for your standard-issue 'believe in yourself' young adult morality tale; take an outsider, add some parental estrangement, real skills unappreciated by peers, and you can just about start colouring in the numbers, right?  But after Hiccup successfully captures one of the fiercer varieties of dragons, the real story begins.

I don't want to give too much away here, and I sincerely believe anyone who considers this blog even vaguely entertaining should just go and watch this film right now, but in short, Hiccup has to juggle new-found knowledge of his people's mortal enemies against his learning to slay them, and the cultural acceptance this is going to bring him.

The writing and pacing are deft, there are no dull moments, the voice acting and characterizations are brilliant and the action sequences, especially those focused on flying, are spectacular.  In fact, I found myself really regretting not having seen it in 3D in the theatre.

The creature work on the differing types of dragons is terrific, and the animation on Toothless, the principle dragon, is priceless.  I can't remember the last time I saw an animated creature this expressive, but I bet Chuck Jones drew it, whatever it was.  And watching the making-of features on the DVD shows just how much care and attention they put into the smallest details, such as the characteristics of the differing types of fire each species of dragon produces,

Where I started thinking about the movie as metaphor though, was a moment when Hiccup looks at Toothless, realizing how much they have in common, and says, "Everything we know about you guys is wrong."  This scrawny, sardonic viking became my new benchmark for courage when he goes to his father and tries to explain how they don't have to be consigned to an eternity of conflict because it turns out they may share a common enemy.

Next year will be ten years since 9/11, and despite the fact that there have been no other attacks on the United States, I don't think too many of us would consider the world a significantly safer or saner place to live.  Canadian troops will be removed from combat operations in Afghanistan, and unless deliberate care is taken, it could be very easy for groups like the Taliban to exert control again.  Still though, there is resistance and apprehension about inviting the Taliban to peace talks and the possibility of government representation.

I have a hard time with this; ten years of trying to build peace through primarily military means hasn't led to a lot of gains.  While a lot of Taliban camps and troops have been disrupted , relocated or killed, new recruits pour in all the time, and territories purchased with blood in prior campaigns has been ceded back due to an inability to hold them.  It is difficult to see the point in non-military ventures like schools, roads and wells, if Afghan residents are terrified of using them for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

It is imperative that any chance to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table be seized, even if it means an amnesty to those who have killed our troops with IEDs or buying them outright.  A military-only solution will only work if the potential for killing every last single man-jack of them exists, and as long as the west appears to be motivated by vengeance or greed (thanks Dubya), this is a mathematical impossibility.  Let's face it, when your opponent lives like a caveman and has absolutely no fear of death, you've lost an awful lot of leverage as far as conventional warfare is concerned.  (I'd be terrified to read an alternate history where the two cold war superpowers were the British Empire and a Taliban-style hegemony, where the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction was replaced by the fear of not getting your shots in first, but that's another story...) 

The moment the extremists come to the table and feel they have a voice, lasting peace becomes a lot more viable.  I don't know how you address the fact that the Taliban are the original 'nothing to lose/better to burn out than to fade away' crowd, so I have no idea how you keep them at the table, or even force them to abide by decisions made at the table, but without a dialogue, no long term solution can be reached.

I've been a vocal supporter of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan since it began, and still believe in it, but the lack of gains in building infrastructure and winning the 'hearts and minds' side of things makes me very fearful of the future, especially after Canada and the other western nations start pulling out.  I still have hope, though, foolish as it may be.  "They've killed hundreds of us!" Hiccup's father rails at him.  "We've killed thousands of them!" retorts Hiccup.

It should be mentioned that this movie is not just a thinly veiled metaphor for current events, but the timeless truths behind alienation, suspicion and the shifty, blurring line between defense and revenge seems to resonate with this particular struggle really well.  Despite having a worthy message and theme, How to Train Your Dragon deftly manages to avoid being preachy or ham-handed, and is a ripping adventure tale to boot.  It has a lot of good things to say about not just taking a stand, but the consequences of taking one, something often overlooked in family movies.

I dearly wish someone would translate this film into Arabic, and Israeli, and Pashtun, and Urdu, and Congolese, and Tamil, and a hundred other languages as well, and air drop it into conflict areas along with the containers of distilled water and Pop-Tarts.  (I'm not sure how they would watch them, some other blog can sort that out.)  I hope a bunch of kids all over the world see this movie, like mine did, and they hear Hiccup say, "I wouldn't kill him because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him and I saw myself." 

I hope they remember it, and they don't let that feeling get coerced, co-opted or beaten out of them by jaded adults who will try to convince them that it isn't that simple, that the world doesn't really work that way, because it could if enough of us wanted it to.  The real enemy, the true terror, is being afraid to try.

1 comment:

  1. It was awesome in 3D, nearly as good as Avatar in that respect. We've been waiting for it to come out on DVD for months, and finally got to watch it again last night. We all watched it and liked it.