The Dragon Prince, Hilda,and the Creation of Empathy

The late great film critic Roger Ebert often called movies “empathy generating machines.” In a speech he gave at the 2004 AFI Commencement, he said:

“[T]he motion picture is the most important art [form] ever devised by the human race. That’s because it is the art form that creates more empathy than any other. It creates our ability for us to step out of our own shoes.”

Films – and I would argue stories of any form – allow us to see the world through the eyes of another. We can see worlds and experience journeys that we would otherwise never have the opportunity to. We connect with the characters. We can feel their sorrows, their joys, their loves, their hardships. We root for them to succeed and despair when they fail. The characters become real people to us, people whom we hold dear to our hearts.

But, perhaps more importantly, stories allow us to understand better ourselves and those in our lives. We empathize and we recognize those same emotions, those same struggles, those same fears, and those same joys in ourselves and others. We learn how to be better people.

As an adult, I’ve gravitated towards media generally intended for a younger audience. My list of movies to see usually include the MCU, Star Wars, Disney and Pixar, non-Disney animated features like The LEGO Movie and Kubo and the Two Strings. My list of favorite shows includes mostly animated ones like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Batman: The Animated Series, Star Wars Rebels, Voltron: Legendary Defender, Violet Evergarden, and Netflix’s two latest jaunts, The Dragon Prince and Hilda (and the primary subjects of this essay).

A question many of you may be having is “How are Roger Ebert’s ethos for movies and my film tastes related?” That question has already been answered.

It’s empathy.

These are the films that create the most empathy for me. These are the characters I hold dear. These are the stories where I find myself in and I learn the most from. They tell me that the world can be a wonderful place, that we all have a special place in the universe, that there’s a light of goodness even when the night is at its darkest. To put it simply, they make me feel  and then make me want to do better for myself and for those I encounter in my life.

hilda-poster

Hilda Poster,” New On Netflix, September 12, 2018, link

Netflix’s newest shows, The Dragon Prince and Hilda, best exemplify what I’m talking about.

The Dragon Prince

The Dragon Prince, whose production and writing staff include those who worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, takes place in a fantasy where humanity had been driven off by the “magical” races of elves and dragons for practicing dark magic, powers that require the use of the essence of living creatures to function. They had gone to war and the humans managed to kill the dragon king and his only egg, who was to become his heir. The story proper starts  sometime after the death of the dragon king and a group of  moon elves – a race of elves known for their stealth and cunning – are sent to assassinate the human king and his heir.

Main characters of the story are Prince Callum, the stepson of the human king and the older of the two sons, Prince Ezran, the king’s biological son and heir to the throne, and Rayla, a young moon elf who is part of the assassination group. In her efforts to kill Ezran and Callum (since he’d seen too much), she soon discovers that the dragon king’s egg hadn’t been killed with its father but was stolen by humans and kept hidden underneath the royal castle. Believing that bringing the egg back to the elves and dragons could end the war, Rayla, Callum, and Ezran flee the castle in order to find their way to the elven lands and bring about peace.

Without spoiling too much, the first hurdle our group has to clear is their distrust of and prejudices toward one another. Rayla had been taught that humans are barbarous and duplicitous while Callum and Ezran were always told elves were savage and bloodthirsty. Ezran is the quickest to trust Rayla, being the youngest and kindest of the group, while Rayla and Callum cautiously circle one another until they prove themselves to each other.

Callum himself is a misfit. He’s the adopted son of the king (something that the oafish crownsguard Soren is wont to remind him) and sees himself as inferior to his stepfather and his half-brother. While he’s a prince, he doesn’t excel at “princely” activities like riding and sword-fighting and would much rather spend his time drawing and learning magic. His journey is in part to find his place in the world in addition to help his brother and new friend prevent war.

Rayla sees herself as a failure and disappointment. In the very first scene of the show, the moon elves encounter a human patrol who spots them and runs off to warn the rest of the kingdom. Rayla is sent to kill him and she effortlessly catches him. However, when the time comes and she sees the fear in his eyes, she can’t bring herself to kill him and lets him go. She lies to the rest of her group. She then participates in a ritual that quite literally binds her to her mission. The moon elves swear an oath to kill the king and his son and magically bind cords to their arms. They only fall off once the mission is complete and, until then, it binds tighter and tighter until it renders the hand useless. When it comes to light that Rayla let the human guard go, she is ostracized from the rest of her group.

Early in her journey with the egg, one of the bindings falls off, something she keeps secret from Callum and Ezran. Meanwhile, she desperately tries to find a way to get rid of the second, unwilling to share with the two humans what it really means. To her, its a constant reminder of her failure to her people – that, when the time came, she couldn’t kill for their sake – as well as a symbol that she can’t be fully honest with the princes. How would they react if she told them she would lose her hand because of an oath she made to kill Ezran?

Hilda

Hilda is a show based off a graphic novel of the same name. It takes place in an early 90s-esque Scandinavian/Northern European setting where magical creatures – such as trolls, elves, and giants – and spirits live side-by-side with humans. It’s about a precocious, fearless. but kind girl named Hilda who lives in a cozy cabin in the wilderness with her mum and their pet fox-deer Twig (who, by the way, is the cutest creature ever conceived and I want one). She spends her days exploring the forests and mountains around them – she is a self-described adventurer, after all – and befriending all manners of creatures. It’s sometimes to her mum’s chagrin, but she wouldn’t want Hilda to be any different.

However, they soon have to move to the city of Trolberg where Hilda is out of her element and forced to make new friends with the strangest creatures of them all to her – other children. She joins the Sparrow Scouts – the Trolberg equivalent to our Scouting – and befriends the ever-organized Frida and the ever-cautious David and gets into all sorts of new adventures she never thought she could have in the city.

Within the first couple episodes, the show starts of strong with its message of kindness, empathy, and regard for others. In the first episode, Hilda and Twig find a large, oddly-shaped rock that Hilda exclaims is a troll – they turn to stone in the sun and move about at night or on cloudy days. She places a bell on its long nose, so they would always know when he’s about, and draws him in her sketchbook. However, the sun soon sets and the troll reanimates. The troll, grumpy as ever, chases Hilda and Twig all around the forest, though the two are able to know where he is because of the constantly ringing bell on his nose. The duo make it home, but the troll confronts them right outside their door. Twig growls, but Hilda sees what’s wrong. The sound from the bell is driving the troll mad, but he can’t reach it because his arms are too short. While she placed the bell there so they would always know where he is, she also didn’t want to cause him any pain. Slowly, she removes the bell and, as his way to say “thanks,” he returns Hilda’s sketchbook that she dropped in her panic.

This small encounter sets the tone for the rest of the story. While Hilda is young and prone to bouts of selfishness and shortsightedness, she is also highly aware of the feelings of others – human and otherwise – and does her best to bring a little joy to all she meets. She is always well-meaning and, most importantly, never backs down from an adventure. What kind of adventurer would she be if she did?

Why do I like them so much?

While new, these two shows instantly became my favorites and I can’t wait for their next seasons. But why? Why do I connect with these shows that are designed for younger audiences and starring characters who are children or teenagers?

Too often in our adult lives we find ourselves in positions where we feel like we’re kids again, but not in the ways we would like. When we move to a new city or start a new job or school program, we feel lost and out of our depth. We worry that we won’t make friends, that we won’t make a difference, that the universe does not care and nothing we do matters. We feel alone and afraid and we desperately want to find some kind of comfort, anything that can make us feel like ourselves again. But we also feel that we can’t show or express this. That we need to put on a face that everything is okay or just accept that this is how the world works. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can move on.

Shows like The Dragon Prince and Hilda tell us the exact opposite. They tell us that our feelings are valid, that it is okay to feel lost and afraid or that it is okay to fail or to feel like failures. It is okay to feel sorrow for loss or change and it is okay to express it. We’re all human, and bottling it all up inside only serves to make us less so.

On the flip side, they show the best humanity has to offer. They show us the depth of people’s kindness, the lengths someone is willing to go to help a friend or a complete stranger. They show us that the world is a wondrous place, with so much to see and explore and learn. They show us that we can and help us to feel a great sense of joy and wonder for others, for ourselves, and for the world around us. As Hilda says with so much joy and enthusiasm: “There’s a great big world out there, there’s so much we’ve never seen, so much we don’t know! Such is the life of an adventurer.”

If I had to sum it up in a brief sentence, it would be this: stories like those in The Dragon Prince and Hilda validate us and our feelings while also showing us what it means to truly be human, to truly be alive, to truly care for someone else.

 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been less able to tolerate shows like Family Guy, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, South Park, and other shows that are meant for “adults” for one simple reason: they’re far too cynical. They all assume the worst of humanity, the inherent terribleness of the world, and the absurdity of meaning in the universe. Cynicism is an easy attitude to latch onto and a difficult one to shake. I don’t need any help to drag me down into those depths so I can wallow in the cynical despair. Willingly engaging with one’s emotions, daring to feel joy and sorrow and empathy for others, I find to be more difficult.

And I would much rather engage with stories that help create empathy.

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