Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
The Chinese animated series The Leader (currently on its first season) is a crisp condensation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s formation of communist thought via a timeline that starts from Marx’s childhood and continues towards his completion of Capital: Critique of Political Economy. The success of the series relies on the explicit connection made between the foundational tenets of Marxism and the ambitions of young people. Flowers and sparkles float across blue skies as a theme song by rap group NZBZ describes a fearless journey towards liberation and hope for “all people.” Its refrain, an extremely catchy one, proclaims that each of these dreams is “very Marx”! The man himself is of chiseled features and fiery charm. Children, onscreen projections of the audience, approach him with variations of a question: Why must we—the poor and sick, the factory workers—suffer? Since The Leader is produced in partnership with the Communist Youth League Central Propaganda Department with the intent of further popularizing Marxism among Chinese youth, it would be correct to classify these episodes as propaganda. But there is an undeniable overlap in the captivating glimmer of propaganda and that of edutainment. To a degree, the two can be considered more similar than not.
Some argue that Walt Disney coined the term “edutainment” in 1954; others point to engineers and scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. The concept precedes the word, referring to media that function as vehicles of learning equipped with storytelling devices meant to “entertain” (though the implications and interpretations of this may be nebulous). The foremost consideration of edutainment is to determine whether or not the convergence of educational and entertaining content will compel and convince its impressionable audience, and (depending on the type of knowledge imparted) to what end.
Researcher Shalom Fisch, author of Children's Learning from Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond, proposes a "capacity model of children's comprehension of educational content" to roughly predict the effectiveness of edutainment’s combined properties. Fisch identifies a relationship between children’s capacity to “extract and comprehend” educational content (“underlying educational concepts or messages”) when embedded within narrative structures (“the sequence of events, the goals set and achieved by its characters”). The narrower the distance between the two, the higher likelihood that the child retains the educational content with “limited capacity of working memory.” In other words, the lesson and its trappings and surroundings should complement one another, rather than compete for attention, to maintain the child’s engagement with the ideas at hand. The letters of the alphabet are recited to a riling beat on Sesame Street, paired with images of corresponding objects. A for apple, apes, arms, à la Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). In The Leader, Karl Marx engages in class conflict by charismatically opposing the bourgeoisie that disenfranchise his loved ones, expanded from his family and friends to include an entire world’s proletarian population—pedagogy entwined in pathos and panache.
The typically longer length of feature films, uninterrupted by commercial breaks or divisions into segments or episodes, proves to be a double-edged sword that few can master: More runtime enables productions wider windows of opportunity to tighten the seams between the educational and “narrative” fabrics (“narrative” as related to cinema could also encompass components and formal methods of avant-garde, documentary filmmaking, et cetera). The strings may also unravel if time and space are wasted, and to reiterate what must be repeated again and always, however potent the efficacy of the message, what equally matters is the worth of the message itself.
At the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International (TAAFI), where I attended a screening of How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the DreamWorks franchise was described as a standout among its contemporaries because of its “pure fantasy” properties. (Its website, for instance, includes a decorated "Dragonpedia" of each known dragon). Based on the books by Cressida Cowell and directed by Dean DeBlois (whose Lilo & Stitch  is another portrait of inter-species reconciliation), the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy details the alliance that emerges between the Vikings of Berk and the dragons that they’ve come to despise over several generations. Their hostilities are spread across an unforgiving ocean controlled by dragon hunters, conquerors, and thieves. When the chief’s son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriends an injured Night Fury (one species of an infinite amount) named Toothless, his individual unlearning becomes a template for societal change. Five years later, the Berk Vikings and dragons share the island in harmony. The convolution of this reformation—which includes a total overhaul of the island’s infrastructure—is proof of an intricate ripple effect led by Hiccup’s change of heart, an amplification of its significance. To move forward, one must undo the misjudgments of the past; the rest of the world will follow in time.
The Hidden World, the third and latest entry of the trilogy, is as thickly layered in particulars as its predecessors. Beneath its details, the formula of the How To Train Your Dragon features is simple and neat for comprehension: Pair a political dilemma with a personal one, and the quality required to solve one will apply to the other. The pursued trait in The Hidden World (in comparison to the boldness encouraged by the first film, or the decisive judgment against evil in the second film) is selfless sacrifice. Having inherited his father’s chiefdom, Hiccup must solve the island’s overpopulation problem by planning a mass migration from a homeland of many centuries. Before a decision is reached, the ruthless hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) attempts to kidnap the dragons, pushing Hiccup to consider liberating the dragons from human interference altogether.
But within The Hidden World’s pontifications about progress and its requirements, the film also (what we might place on the “narrative content” corner of the model) engages in a simultaneous regression, a distracting variable tossed into the formula that dilutes its value. Grimmel, a presumed dragon expert, lures Toothless outside of Berk to weaken the island’s defenses. His weapon of choice, though the term “bait” also applies, is a female Night Fury. On Berk, Hiccup is asked if he plans to marry his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrara), anytime soon. He gawks and chokes, like Toothless when he sees the so-called “Light Fury.” Romance, the wrench thrown in the works, becomes a part of the curriculum.
This is not to declare that sex and mating and relationships are out of bounds and irrelevant to understanding how to be a better person. Instead, I'd rather draw attention to how How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World incorporates ideas and images about the like into its framework of edutainment, and what it shares with propaganda—namely, the presence of an agenda. The design of the “Light Fury” flirts with what Gavia Baker-Whitelaw refers to as an “[exaggeration] of a fictionalized idea of sexual dimorphism,” or the biological variations among creatures based on their sexual makeup. With upturned, feline eyes and curved calves, the Light Fury’s shape recalls that of the bodacious dragon from Shrek (2001). What proves more perturbing is how these physical differences become associated with behavioral differences that too easily conform to manmade notions about gender. Toothless drools with lust while waiting for the Light Fury to reappear, then stumbles his way through a mating ritual inspired by the bird-of-paradise.
DeBlois compares the awkwardness of the male dragon to that of Hiccup, whose friend Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) tries to teach him how to be “marriage material,” which involves lowering his voice and standing tall. The closest similarity between the two roads to love (one, human; the other, dragon) is that neither of their supposed girlfriends walks on her own path, instead waiting to be wooed, providing encouragement as the second-in-command. The diminished role of women can be compared to the 2014 How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is about the passing of Hiccup’s father and return of his long-lost mother as the warrior matriarch of Berk society. In this film, Hiccup learns that he has more in common with his mother than he once thought; these scenes are padded by the consistent input and partnership from Astrid regarding Hiccup’s decisions, reminding him: “What you’re looking for is not out there, but in [your heart].”
It is especially baffling, too, that considering the endless creative possibilities, the titular “hidden world” (the secret, underwater dragon realm that features nearly one thousand dragons) is revealed as Toothless standing in the center, with the Light Fury behind him, made smaller by distance. The assignment of these archaic qualities has dual implications. The continued perpetuation of gender roles only further communicates to transgender or gender-nonconforming children that their coming-of-age is not normal. Likewise, The Hidden World stumbles into an existing and entrenched norm that suggests the heteronormative experience of sexual attraction and romance is a universal component of one's rite of passage. In the context of the franchise’s themes of maturation and ownership, the implication is that these acts are even necessary as a propelling force towards one becoming king of the land and king of their life.
What occurred to me during the screening, as I sleepily sifted through the weighty jokes about marriage and dating that only continued to cloud and contradict co-existing ideas, was whether children find such knotty drama to be closer to a lecture than leisure. The adults in my row were thrilled; a number were also animators and professed members of the franchise's large fandom. From my seat, I looked over my shoulder, and saw a tiny toddler resting her chin on her shoulder. I spoke to a couple and their child standing outside of the theater. The parents had seen the previous two films of the franchise, as well the multi-season television series. Their son is a big fan. “I felt like there wasn’t enough space [dedicated to] the mom,” the mother said. Her husband disagreed; for him, the movie signified a shift towards and a sharpening focus on Hiccup rather than other characters. The child fumbled with his scarf, eyes turned to the ground. Yawning, he could not say whether he thought the movie was good or bad, or if he was excited to see Hiccup on the big screen. He, like a number of other kids turning in their seats, was exhausted—the event was programmed two hours past his bedtime. His mother assured me that he might have more to talk about the next morning.