I was not expecting to be on a plane, flying back to Australia. Libraries closed, online teaching, “unprecedented times” (etc. etc. etc.) — I sank back into my seat, flicked on the little airplane screen in front of me… and proceeded to watch all three How to Train Your Dragon films, back-to-back. I drifted into a world of comic, Viking dragon riders; of bold music scores; of right and wrong. I couldn’t look away. What a strange thing? I almost laugh thinking back on it: what a strange thing to be tethered and grounded by watching a kids’ movie about flying, while in the air? What a strange thing, that as I flicked through all the new releases and serious arthouse films I’d been meaning-to-see-for-a-while, and all the golden-age-classics-I’m-sure-I’ll-get-to-some-day, that it was the familiar comfort of kids’ films that drew me in and provided a welcome distraction.
Maybe it is because How to Train Your Dragon is about a society under pressure, one which has to change its behaviour? The village of Berk is in a violent struggle with the dragons, suffering perpetual attacks that damage houses, threaten lives, and kill livestock. The luckless protagonist, Hiccup, builds a contraption which wounds a dangerous and elusive dragon — but instead of killing it, he turns to compassion. As a result, he learns about the dragons on their own terms, taking off the mask of the monster in the process. In doing so, he triggers a transformative change in Berk, which results in dragons and humans co-habiting in a peaceful, mutually beneficial way. In these times of societal transformation, it offers a bold and generous method for centering compassion and understanding in social restructure.
But, midway through my analysis, I realised that my using How to Train Your Dragon to perform a socio-cultural critique on Covid-19 was an attempt to justify my viewing selection. If I’m being honest though, if I’m going to rush headlong at the truth rather than sidling towards it with an analysis, the real reason I wanted to watch How to Train Your Dragon was because it was nice, warm, and comforting. The best type of children’s media has that inner flame, a burnished optimism, which can remind audiences of every age of the fervent joy that comes from stories that are powered by humane goodness.
The children’s author and All Souls fellow Katherine Rundell, released a short essay last year titled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. Rundell lays out a case for the consumption of children’s media by those of all ages with deft scholarship and joyous passion. For her, the best children’s fiction “helps us refind things we may not even know we have lost”. The past rushes up to meet us, reminding us of a time when “new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before the imagination was trimmed and neatened…”
Anecdotally, many a zoom call with friends now scattered around the world reveals that quite a lot of us are turning back to our childhood joys in these times. A friend in London has re-read all of the How To Train Your Dragon books (‘it’s great cause you can read one a day, they’re so short — it’s just the right size to feel like you’ve achieved something!’); two friends, one in Sydney and one in Wales, are slowly watching all the Studio Ghibli films, and listening to a podcast about them as they go; and since my hazy jet-lagged jump into the How To Train movies, I have been reading Terry Pratchett.
Regarding the joys of refinding, to borrow Rundell’s term, I particularly relish the feeling that I am doing something that is purely about enjoyment. It is far harder to tangle kids’ media into the nexus of self-improvement that has been stretching across social media feeds. It discharges the pressure of using this time to get fit, learn languages, read Infinite Jest or whatever else. One of the powers of children’s films at this time is that they are not pitched at the level of extending self-improvement or artistic challenge, but instead, are capaciously centred around entertainment — and around the unfashionable poles of good and evil, with the former triumphing over the latter.
These unfashionable poles may not hold between them the complexity and insight that many of us yearn for, but they are a good place to strike out from. Perhaps they even, as Rundell would imply, offer a chance for recalibration. We can pull out our moral compass and point it at the simple childhood poles of good and bad, and test where we are now. We can triangulate ourselves in the more complex mire of adulthood by peering at the stars and the lodestone of our youth; by being reminded of a time when we held an innate belief that the rules of the fables and stories were true, and that we’d make it through any hardship if we held onto love, friendship, and hope.