Today, I went saw HTTYD2 with a relatively new friend of mine. Now, typically, I’m a bit of a movie snob. I own very few DVDs and I see even fewer in theater because it’s just SO expensive and I don’t want to waste money on a movie that’s no good. Besides, I’m SUCH a movie snob that local theaters don’t often play the movies that I really want to see.
But I’d heard such good things about this one and the first one had been pretty good, so I thought I’d give it a go.
Surprise, surprise, I’m going to address the disability business pretty exclusively. Now, I don’t discredit anyone who might find issues with the representation of disability in this film (so long as they have solid reasons), but I say way to fucking go, Dreamworks. Main character, main protagonist, hero of the story is disabled. Doesn’t take any special care to hide it. But it’s not the defining trait of his story. Instead, his great struggle is that of self-discovery and figuring what his role in his community and the greater world ought to be. How can he live up to his fullest potential. He handles his disability like most disabled people—he adapts, and gets on with his life. On top of that, he’s got a lady friend (disability completely aside, great job of not making that overly dramatic and hokey, too). And he’s fucking awesome. He’s allowed to be awesome, not because he overcomes his disability, but because of his other fantastic qualities—compassion, a good sense of morals, and a mind for peace.
BUT Dreamworks takes it a step further by providing a foil. The quickest way to perpetuate a stereotype is to offer only one representation. But in this movie, we’ve also got a “villain” with a disability. An extremely similar disability, in fact, caused by an extremely similar scenario. The villain becomes a villain not because of some blind rage for the entire world, but because he feels a need to avenge the incident that left him disabled. He sees his actions as indicative of strength, of perseverance. But he’s still wrong for it. Best of all, this motive isn’t clear until late in the movie, allowing the audience time and good reason to dislike him. And I think that’s actually hugely important.
A positive representation of disability shows individuals who handle it admirably AND individuals who don’t. Their disability doesn’t directly dictate their character, it provides raw material, sometimes a catalyst that they MAY choose to mold into kind actions or malicious actions. But it also doesn’t HAVE to be a huge factor in the shaping of their character. So there are two ends of the spectrum, sometimes, when it comes to representations of disabled people—you either root for them out of pity or you loathe them out of freakishness. These trends in representation have fluctuated throughout film’s history, and there are examples for each side, but they’re both equally damaging. A person is not good or bad because of their disability or even because of the way they handle their disability. The quality of their character in no way depends on that disability. So by having both the hero and the villain have essentially the same disability, Dreamworks really does a lot to stretch that binary into a spectrum.
And if that weren’t enough, there are random characters (both human and dragon) with disabilities too. One character is both disabled and queer. In these instances, the disability is acknowledged and it’s visible, but it has literally no bearing on the plot or their actions. It’s incidental. That’s important too. Because I know that generally speaking, my disability is hugely influential to the person I am. But in my life, some days, it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even enter my mind. Sometimes I want my intelligence to define me. Or my humor. Or hell, the color of my hair. The reality is that the disability is woven in, it’s essential, but it’s not always center stage. And Dreamworks did a damn fine job of illustrating that.