Mar 30 2010

How to Train Your Dragon – With a Scottish Accent

This may be my first actual movie review, but there were a few points I thought worth musing about after watching the new Dreamworks movie – How to Train Your Dragon. I promise – no real spoilers.

First, let me say I really enjoyed the movie. It was much better than I thought it was going to be. My favorite aspect of the movie is the fact that the nerd is the hero. Basically this is the story of a nerd who feels out of place in a town of jocks – a town that celebrates jocks and completely rejects his quirky nerditude. Eventually the protagonist finds a way to use his smarts and curiosity to beat the jocks at their own game – and even to change the very nature of the game, making it one that celebrates smarts over brawn.

I have nothing against jocks or athletic prowess, in fact I think excellence in the physical realm is worth celebrating and I have enthusiastically engaged in sports my entire life. This is not really a “revenge of the nerds” type plot line, but rather seeing the value in recognizing a diversity of talents, rather than narrowly defining success. Nothing new, really, but nicely done.

Some have complained that the other main theme – meeting strangeness with understanding rather than violence – was preachy, but I disagree. This is a fine theme for a family movie, and was not overdone.

But there was another small aspect of this movie I found very curious. The movie takes place in a viking town. And sure, it was not surprising to find a cliche of vikings in a kid’s cartoon – complete with horned helmets. However, these vikings had Scottish accents.

I am not complaining about realism – after all, this is a movie in a fictitious world inhabited by a multiplicity of dragons. Rather, I was just hit by how solidified the Hollywood cliche of the Scottish accent had become. Part of my reaction was born of the fact that emotionally the Scottish accents “felt” right in the movie, even though they simultaneously felt out of place.

I’m not sure exactly when this cliche became solidified, but this movie certainly proves that it has been. I think Braveheart likely is  a major cause – audiences fell in love with heroes speaking in a Scottish brogue. The accent itself came to signify the characteristics of William Wallace – brave, brutal, barbaric, but honorable.

I think the mental connection between the Scottish accent and these characteristics was then further entrenched by Shrek. Shrek was a noble ogre, and Mike Myers chose to portray him with a Scottish accent. It seemed to fit, and it strongly reinforced the stereotype.

Now credit card commercials featuring barbarian hordes ask you in a Scottish accent, “What’s in your wallet?”

Up until How to Train Your Dragon I would have considered this just a preference – the popularity of the Scottish hero. But the makers of this movie felt it necessary to portray vikings with a Scottish accent – because they are barbaric, fight with swords and axes, and are honorable.

This made me further ponder the nature of Hollywood stereotypes themselves. They exist because of the tendency for association – we look for patterns and associations and make the connections in our minds. Such connections can be strong, and tied to emotional reactions.

These become hooks for movie writers and directors – a way to instantly communicate something to the audience. So every bag of groceries in a TV show or movie has celery or carrot sprigs coming out the top – that way the audience knows they are groceries. When was the last time you bought a bunch of carrots with the leafy stems still attached, and then did not put them in a plastic produce bag?

In the movies when a young couple is in love, they must shop together in an open-air market, take a rowboat ride on a pond, and wash a car together and then playfully spray each other with water.

And now, apparently, all honorable barbarians have Scottish accents.

I am not denigrating all such practices. As I said, humans are good at making associations, and these become convenient tools for quickly communicating something to an audience. But there is a spectrum from a useful cinematic convention to a tired cliche. Conventions (like the carrot stems) are often benign, almost subconscious, and serve their purpose. I don’t need the director wasting screen time getting across that those are bags of groceries – just put the stupid carrot stems out the top.

But some cliches are so tired they now grate on me every time I see them. I really don’t need to see another playful water fight among lovers, or the beam-on-beam energy battle between good and evil, or a nerd with tape on their glasses.

I also realized, by the end of the movie I was already a little tired of the Scottish accent thing. While it made an immediate emotional connection, it was rapidly slipping into the realm of cliche.

The problem with these Hollywood conventions/cliches is that they are an excuse for lazy writing and directing. They also demonstrate a certain lack of respect for the audience. You know – I think we could have handled vikings with Scandinavian accents and still connected to the vibe of the movie. Or forget the accents – they wouldn’t be speaking accented English anyway.

Do something new, and challenge the audience a bit – even in a family-oriented cartoon. We can take it. But that requires work and creativity. My bias is that directors should be striving to create their own new conventions, not rest on established and overused ones. Dreamworks is certainly no stranger to creativity, and as I said, the movie was otherwise excellent.

(What is your favorite or most annoying movie cliche?)

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