Rogue Element 119: The Alpha Theory Atrocity or What Went Wrong in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’
Written by Avril Brown
I adored the first ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ film and literally squealed in the theater months back when the teaser trailer for the sequel showed up on the big screen. Hiccup and Toothless back in action with more gadgets and fancy flying? Sold! The original movie was such a breath of fresh, adorable air, I couldn’t imagine how more of this amazing cast of characters would be anything less than incredible.
That is not to say the movie wasn’t entertaining, for it certainly was. The animation in the sequel is still jaw-dropping and vibrant. All of the dragons, old and new, are bright and unique. There are moments of brilliance which raised the bar from the first movie, such as the Quidditch-like game played on dragonback using terrified, catapulted sheep to score points. Overall, however, the story simply felt like a different spin on the original with a few more disturbing scenes tossed in the mix. ‘Dragon’ went to a Joss Whedon-esque dark place, which didn’t score it any points in my happy ending-loving book. The original was cheerful and good for all ages; a smart and heartwarming tale about friendship, family and bravery. The sequel was clearly trying to be a coming of age story as Hiccup the man attempts to figure out his place among his people with his bestest dragon buddy at his side, but it came off so heavy-handed and trite.
My other main point of contention with the movie was the use of the ‘alpha dog theory.’ Background check: I work as an Animal Behavior Specialist at a Chicago animal shelter, which means it’s my job to know and understand dog and cat body language and behavior. I believe in positive reinforcement, reward-based training methods and treating a pet like a member of the family. Know what I don’t believe in? Cesar friggin’ Milan. I HATE Cesar Milan. Seriously, HATE. Like with the passion of a thousand dying suns. He is largely responsible for resurrecting the antiquated, and often cruel, training methods and philosophies of the ‘alpha dog theory,’ which in summation states you should be the ‘alpha’ in your pack and your dog should submit to you, and often advocates the use of physical force to ensure this happens. This theory is founded on how wolves function in their pack, with an alpha male and female essentially running the pack and getting all the good stuff first, while everyone else has to wait their turn and take care of the kids. The core problem with this theory is simple: dogs are not wolves. They haven’t been for at least ten thousand years. We have taken over their evolution and molded it to our lives and purposes. Yes, there are still plenty of similarities, but now canis familiaris is no more canis lupus than homo sapiens is homo neanderthalensis.
I do not believe in ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ (feel free to make a BDSM joke in your head as you read that); in fact, I’ve developed a slight eye twitch every time someone tells me their dog is ‘dominant’ and ‘clearly wants to be the alpha.’ So you can imagine my disappointment, and the staggering number of eye twitches I suffered, when the alpha dragon was introduced in ‘Dragon 2.’ As those who saw the previews already know, Hiccup is reunited with his mother whom everyone believed to be dead some twenty years, after being carried off by a dragon when Hiccup was a baby. Turns out the young hero inherited a lot from his mother, including her skills with the beasts. She has spent the last two decades living on a dragon island, learning all about their habits and physiology, and rescuing injured dragons from trappers. Valka introduces Hiccup to the ‘alpha’ dragon who is ginormous, possesses artic breath that can trap anything in solid crystals of ice (which was pretty damn cool), and who can control all the other dragons. As in complete control; he twitches his whiskers and he can get any dragon to do anything he wants. Valka mentions that while “most dragon nests have a queen, the alpha is KING!”
First off, how misogynistic is that? What, are you saying that queens are inferior to kings? Try repeating that to Catherine the Great and see how long you keep your head. Also, flashing my animal-loving nerd card here, but in most species on this planet, the female is deadlier than the male. Amongst hive species (such as bees, ants and naked mole rats), the queens run the joint, no ifs ands nor buts. Typically they are the biggest, they do all the reproducing (must be exhausting) and they create their own successor; there are no challenges to the throne.
In addition, the first ‘Dragon’ film kind of already covered this. The queen dragon had the ability to call the dragons to her so they could feed her fat lazy ass, but when she lost her temper and broke out of her cavernous nest, the other dragons scattered. I can’t help but feel the writers for ‘Dragon 2’ just figured they’d take the queen, make her an alpha male and turn him into an even bigger dick than she was by giving him the power of mind control.
The Big Bad in ‘Dragon 2’ is technically not an evil alpha, but an evil guy controlling the evil alpha. Drago Bloodfist is an angry man with some serious control issues, and who likes to break dragons into submission by stepping on their faces and taunting them. Guess that works for a dragon with a face you can step on, but what about the massive mountain that is an alpha? They never explain how he gained control over that beast; he just waves a stick around and hollers like a gorilla in heat.
The central theme is obviously favoring a more positive, love and loyalty based relationship with the dragons, and though they still have an alpha by the end, it is a more willing acknowledgment of a proven leader, akin to a Viking clan having a worthy chief. Transparently so, in fact. Quite frankly I just wish they found an original idea that didn’t come with such an abused vocabulary word.
‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is still super pretty and great fun more often than not, at least in the first half. All of your favorite characters get some screen time and a few witty lines (just not of the same caliber and frequency as the original). I’m more than a little pissed the writers felt someone needed to die for Hiccup to finally figure himself out, but again, I have issues with non-happy endings. All in all, ‘Dragon 2’ left me wanting to sit down and watch the original for the millionth time. Not a universally terrible sequel, but not a fantastic one either.
And dog owners, for the love of God, turn OFF Cesar Milan, turn ON Victoria Stillwell, and never use the word ‘dominant’ ever again…unless you’re with another consenting adult and a safe word has been clarified.