For those who haven’t seen the news, it’s been revealed that How to Train Your Dragon 2 will feature one of the characters from the first film coming out as gay. In an interview with E! Online, the film’s director, Dean DeBlois, explained that one character will be coming out and told the interviewer which character that was. (I’m not going to spoil that here, but if you want to read the interview which does spoil it, you can find it here.) The moment comes as an offhand comment, ad-libbed by the character’s voice actor, and was not a part of DeBlois’ original script, however the openly gay DeBlois said, “I think that’s a really fun [and] daring move to put in.”
I’m sure there are many people out there who are saying, “So what? Why do we need to make a big deal out of this?” I wish we lived in a world where something like this didn’t need to be celebrated, where something like Michael Sam being drafted was not newsworthy, but the reality is that instances like this are still few and far between. LGBT characters may be more prevalent than ever, and I’m sure any of us could rattle off half a dozen TV shows featuring them (though rarely as the leads). There are plenty of films about LGBT characters as well, but when you look at the big blockbusters each year you’d be hard pressed to find one. Animation, however, is another beast entirely.
There has been exactly one gay character in an animated film that wasn’t aimed at adult audiences (i.e. South Park), and that was in ParaNorman. In that film the character Mitch, an 18 year old jock who is flirted with throughout the film by the protagonist’s cheerleader sister, reveals that he is gay when asked out to the movies by a girl. “You’re gonna love my boyfriend, he’s like a total chick flick nut!” he says. It’s a great moment, coming when least expected and challenging our expectations and prejudices, and it ties in to the film’s message perfectly.
And while I applaud Laika Studios for being bold enough to include a gay character, it didn’t suddenly mean that everyone now magically has equal representation in movies. There was certainly some outcry from conservative groups over the film, but it was widely ignored because the film was not exactly a smash hit. It was an independent, stop-motion animated film, not a big budget CG powerhouse of a movie, and it’s modest $100 million worldwide gross shows that not many people even saw it. I applaud Laika for sticking to an inclusive message in their trailers for the next film, but the end result is still a message that will not be widely seen.
That all has an opportunity to change with How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film that is much more well placed to make a big impact. The first film, while not as successful as something like Frozen, still made a tidy profit at the box office and has seen its fandom grow ever since. The film about an underdog character became something of an underdog itself, and ended up with Oscar nominations, video games, a TV spinoff, and countless toys and other merchandise, all leading up to the first of two planned sequels. A “coming out” moment equivalent to the one in ParaNorman (one line that has no bearing on the plot) has the chance to reach many more people with How to Train Your Dragon 2.
It also is a bold statement for Dreamworks Animation to make, as one of the four major animation studios in the country (Dreamworks, Sony, 20th Century Fox/Blue Sky and Disney/Pixar). Even if the moment came because of an improvisation, the fact that it’s still in the movie represents a first shot by Dreamworks for equality, even if they may not see it that way. It cracks open the door which ParaNorman first unlocked, paving the way for another studio or another Dreamworks film to push that door wide open.
I shouldn’t oversell this moment, however. It’s still an offhand line thrown in partly as a joke, about a minor supporting character and which has no bearing on the plot or that character’s story. And it’s entirely possible that that line might be cut before the film’s release next month. And people have already begun objecting to the news, frequently with statements like, “I don’t have a problem with gay people, but it’s not appropriate for a kid’s movie and I don’t see why they have to shove their agenda down our children’s throats.”
Imagine, however, a gay young person going to see this film who has never once seen a character in a film aimed at him or her whom he or she could relate to. They go see one of the summer’s biggest animated films and suddenly they see a character in a film they love that is a huge hit that they can finally identify with. Now imagine 5 or 10 years from now, when we might be to a point where an animated film actually has an LGBT protagonist. We’re still a long way from that but it might happen.
So where do things go from here? Will this be the start of something big or just a throwaway comment that comes and goes and is never discussed again? Could Disney’s next animated film, Big Hero 6 which comes out in November, feature an LGBT character? How about Disney’s next musical film, Moana? Maybe Pixar will be the next ones to step up, or Fox or Sony. Maybe we won’t see another until How to Train Your Dragon 3. I have to hope that this is the start of something more. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.