Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Four years ago, the first How to Train Your Dragon film was something of a surprise success.  Very loosely based on the children’s book series by Cressida Cowell (and I’m serious about “very loosely;” I almost had a fit when I saw the initial trailers and dragons were the enemy and Toothless was big enough to ride), the first film used its unique setting and tone, along with some brilliant storycrafting and a solid voice cast to stand out from its competition, winning over critics and audiences alike.  It was a story full of heart and humor, with the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless at the center, as they fight to change the traditions and prejudices of their land.  We return once again to the Viking village of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon 2, a sequel that is bigger in nearly every way, but which perhaps is not the better for it.

The sequel picks up events five years after the end of the first film.  The citizens of Berk have become best friends with dragons during that time, with each Viking paired with a dragon as his/her companion and transportation.  They hold elaborate dragon races and competitions, giving both riders and mounts a chance to show off their skills.  Hiccup, meanwhile, is now 20 years old, and chooses to spend his time charting the expanse of sea and islands now open to him on the back of Toothless, rather than face the prospect of eventually replacing his father, Stoick, as the village chief.  The relationship between young man and dragon is as strong as ever, with the two travelling together as best friends/brothers.  Hiccup is even working on a way to fly on his own with a specially designed suit, clearly with more dragon in him than village chief.  Stoick doesn’t seem at all interested in his travels, while his girlfriend, Astrid, struggles to support him and help him to find balance in his life.

Everything changes, however, when Hiccup and Astrid stumble across a dragon trapper, who has been capturing wild dragons for a warlord named Drago Bludvist’s dragon army.  That name conjures fear in Stoick’s heart, and as he orders the village barricaded Hiccup disobeys orders and sets out to find Drago in an attempt to reason with him, despite Stoick’s warning that some people simply cannot be reasoned with.  The arrival of a mysterious dragon rider with ties to Hiccup’s past changes everything.  This rider has been waging their own personal war against Drago, disrupting his trappers and fighting to save as many dragons as possible.  As the situation grows more complex Hiccup is forced to examine his priorities and to finally decide who he is and what he wants from his life, with the fate of his village and the world possibly hanging in the balance.

There are few films, animated or otherwise, that are as well-crafted as How to Train Your Dragon, and that craftsmanship carries over to this sequel.  Berk’s corner of the world feels like a living, breathing place, matched in beauty only by its dragon inhabitants.  The new dragons for this sequel show that the filmmakers have yet to run out of creativity, while the returning dragons have received a new level of polish that helps them feel even more alive.  In a word, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is gorgeous, the sort of gorgeous that James Cameron can only wish Avatar could have been.  Of course, the visuals are helped by returning composer John Powell’s excellent score, which does a superb job setting the mood and the atmosphere and enhancing the wonder and mystery of the movie’s locations.

The entire voice cast from the first film has returned, and are uniformly good.  Jay Baruchel brings a new sense of maturity and even weariness to this older version of Hiccup, while Gerard Butler gets some nice moments as Stoick.  Craig Ferguson is still a scene stealer as Gobber, while America Ferrera makes the most of a somewhat sidelined Astrid.  New additions to the cast include Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou and Kit Harington, all of whom bring something unique to the table.

Unfortunately, despite having so much going for it, I was disappointed in the end by How to Train Your Dragon 2.  It’s not in any way a bad movie, but I feel like it lost sight of what made the first film so successful.  Writer/Director Dean DeBlois (taking the reins solo after his co-writer/co-director from the first film, Chris Sanders, moved into an executive producer role in order to make The Croods), described his vision of the film by comparing it to The Empire Strikes Back, which he said “expanded Star Wars in every direction: emotionally, its scope, characters, fun.”  Using Empire as a guide for a sequel is a great idea, but I think DeBlois missed the mark.  So much effort seems to be spent on expanding the scope of the film that the characters and the feelings got lost in the shuffle.  The first film was an emotional story of a boy challenging the traditions and beliefs of his society in the name of what he felt was right, and about overcoming the fears that are instilled in us in order to appreciate the beauty of the world.  The sequel, however, is an epic story of war and battle, mistakenly moving from the first film, which had some action, to the second film, which is an action movie.

So much feels like it was lost from the first movie to the sequel.  The highlight of the first film was watching Hiccup and Toothless learn to trust and appreciate each other, and watching the bond that formed between them, and then seeing the two of them unite in order to change things.  Obviously, we can’t just rewind that relationship and play it out again, but as a result the heart of the first film has shrunk considerably.  On the other hand, the relationship between Hiccup and his father has been rewound during the last five years, and Stoick has regressed to once again not listening to what his son has to say.  The family drama has been ratcheted up this time around, but it was never especially compelling to me, while the inevitable conflict between Hiccup and Toothless near the end of the film feels forced and disingenuous.  The villain of the piece was astonishingly one-dimensional, given a 30 second speech to justify his actions which felt thrown in at the last second.  Add to that some of the decisions that seem destined to sell more toys or to pander to particularly demographics (“The giant dragon at the end of the first film was awesome, so we should have two giant dragons this time around!”), and the end result is something of a mess.

It’s a shame, because there’s so much to like in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and it has so much potential.  As a production, the film is outstanding, and its increased message of nature conservation and the importance of wildlife rescue is commendable and important.  At one point near the end of the film after a massive battle sequence, the movie seemed to be heading to a melancholy and emotional cliffhanger straight out of The Empire Strikes Back, which felt like a bold place to end and like something unique among movies these days.  It was exciting to me as a viewer to see them seemingly about to take a risk, particularly one which might have redeemed the film significantly in my eyes, so imagine my disappointment when the film continued on to an overblown conclusion, complete with a cliché setup for the inevitable third film in the series.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is in no way a bad movie, and it in fact has many things going for it, it just felt like a disappointment.  Gone were many of the things I loved about the first film, replaced or overshadowed by unnecessary spectacle or dumbed down to allow the film to become an action movie.  There are so many places the story could have gone, from exploring the wider ecosystems inhabited by the dragons of the world to seeing Hiccup help Berk adjust to life with dragons and the inevitable problems it might cause.  (I’d love to see the How to Train Your Dragon 3 take the conservation message of this movie and fully run with it.)  I still have hope for the series, that the next film could be more thoughtful and heartfelt like the first one rather than loud and overblown like the sequel, as the universe they’ve created for these movies is too stunning and creative to squander.  The artistry, the talent and the imagination are still there with this team to make a sequel worthy of the first film, and I will eagerly await that film until it comes.  For now, I’d rather return to the beginning again than rewatch How to Train Your Dragon 2, which may be impressive to see but felt like it was missing its heart.

B

10 thoughts on “Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

  1. Once more, interesting insights, and things I hadn’t thought of.

    My first thoughts on the film were…. WOW THEY TOOK IT UP TO THE NEXT LEVEL!!!

    You may have pointed out one of the issues with writing for Hollywood: where an individual author can write something daring, different and with all the emotional moments you mention, Hollywood presses its authors to fit a system, a formula, that sells stuff. (and, uh, yeah, I bought some of it…)

    I didn’t actually have a problem with the ending, or the Villain. He might have had a bit more character development, but again, there are a lot of characters, and I think he’s not really the center of interest. He’s sort of an archetype: Badbleep Villain, one each, in brrrrrrrrr, dragonskin (which sparked a whole conversation on tumblr that it looked like Night Fury skin….brrrrr). You can read into his brief speech a bit: he and Hiccup actually have similar life experience (bad dragons, bad dragons!): one reacts with anger, fear and brute force, the other reacts with empathy, curiosity and understanding. Look who wins. I actually knew a horse trainer who said something like “turn your fear into anger…” right… Drago.

    Sure, I might have rather seen something other than more ginormous Godzillas… oh well.

    There are some neat undercurrents here: the huge Alpha Dragons, Stoic the Vast, all leaders are huge, broad, expansive, full of physical power….

    …then Toothless and Hiccup. And the Masked Dragonrider. And Astrid (who does need more air time). Many have commented on the fact that none of these characters have inherent brute strength, they use their brains, their relationships, their empathy, their courage to lead.

    One thing that struck me was the family dynamics, without being spoilery, in those family scenes there might have been more Drama, more forced conflict… instead, they went for a family dynamic that, while complicated, is healthy, strong. I feel too many stories (especially YAs) use artificial conflict between characters, and, especially girls, fall into this idea that Conflict is what relationships are all about.

    And dragons. A reviewer said that what the sea is to Finding Nemo, the sky is to HTTYD2. The joy of flight, the colors, the clouds, the shapeshifting density of air and mist and updraft.

    And the relationships between dragon and rider.

    And especially the way things move.

    One of my pet $#&*&^!!! (expletives deleted) is grackinfrackin professional artists who don’t do their research (not even mentioning the gazillions of horrible horsey toys and arts and books and stuffs out there). The artists at Dreamworks clearly found some “dragons”. I’ve ridden horses since I was two, trained a few (including one wild black mustang who’d run wild for 8 years of her life), kayaked the waves, roared on a reach on an 1812 privateer (Pride of Baltimore II, Chesapeake Bay) till the cannons were drinking the sea, swung a dogsled around a corner in a trail, flown (with a real pilot) in a sailplane, flown underwater in scuba gear…

    I can watch this movie and see Hiccup leaning over Toothless like a rider clearing a big jump… it feels right. Hiccup leaning as Toothless banks hard aport… I’ve done that gripping the driving bow of my sled, looked down over the port side of Pride as she heeled on the wind, her sails snapping out like dragon wings. I see Hiccup doing the diver’s backroll off Toothless, and, been there, done that, THAT SURE FEELS RIGHT!!!! And the mystery dragonrider: the light tai chi dance across the backs of flying dragons.. oh yes.

    The artists understood thoroughly how things look, feel and move in our mundane, familiar world… and translated that into the reality of Berk and its surroundings. They knew what to exaggerate, what to minimize; the beauty of a “cartoon” is its ability to enlarge life, to make the colors a bit brighter, to make Stoic a bit more vast, and Hiccup a bit more skinny and geeky, the villain more villainous, the masked dragonrider more graceful than even those martial artists in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

    And Toothless. I think we have all lived with Toothless. I presently have a black cat (who is slightly toothless due to dental issues) who does impersonations of him all the time. My wild black mare was as much of a challenge as any dragon, and as dependable as Toothless. Anyone with a dog can relate to Toothless. And anyone with a Siberian husky will tell you that Toothless’s independent mindset and reactions to “silly humans” are very familiar. Again, the animators nailed it. Perfectly.

    Whatever plotholes there may be, I chalk it up to Hollywood. Hopefully, future installments will be able to work around this annoying part of our culture (the need to formulize everything to sell it). The core of these films is heart, relationships…

    …and our relationship with the natural world. I think this is why these films resonate with me more than nearly anything else (including some very good films this year)(I’ve worked with some wildlife rehabbers, and that part of the film was just incredibly awesome). The friend I do tai chi with said “dragon represents all the animals”. (we all know, from Kung Fu Panda, that there are various animal forms). Dragon plays an integral role in many cultures’ creation tales. (a paleontologist I heard at a lecture corralled a question from a kid about the connection between dragons and dinosaurs with ” all cultures have dragon tales, even those without reptiles… because all cultures can dig up dino bones…”). Dragon is one of the beings that connect heaven and earth, destruction and creation. The ancient myths are complex, too complex (and violent) for a kids’ tale, but the essence of the archetype of Dragon is there; a representative of the Natural World, of the Unknown, of the Things That Go Bump In The Night, and the idea that, if we look closer, sacrifice our Ego, our fear might be transformed into something beautiful and sustaining.

    I hope they can keep up the quality of these films, despite whatever goobers might arise, I’m looking forward to many more.

    Carry on!

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    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I’ve been travelling, but I’m back now.
      They did take it to the next level, but I felt like in doing so they lost some of the most important parts of what made the first film so special. There’s a tendency to go bigger for sequels that is sometimes really disappointing.
      The villain is an archetype, and I didn’t actually have any huge problems with him. I just felt like my other complaints with the film made the villain seem even less interesting. He and Hiccup do have similar life experiences with different reactions, but I wish we could have gotten even a brief explanation as to why Drago reacted to his injury the way he did. I certainly wouldn’t want to work with a horse trainer who talked like him, though.
      If you like the fact that the smaller, “weaker” characters get to be the heroes, in place of the bigger, more stereotypically masculine characters, then you should definitely read the books. In the books, Toothless is the smallest of all dragons, able to fit on Hiccup’s shoulder, and Hiccup is even more scrawny and “pathetic” than in the film.
      I thought the family dynamic had potential, but I just felt like it was lost in the spectacle of the rest of the film. And I thought the masked dragonrider was underwritten to a point that was frustrating. Hopefully that can be remedied for the sequel.
      I love the comparison to Finding Nemo in terms of sea and sky, because that’s very true. The best moments were those with Hiccup and Toothless just loving doing their dragon thing, soaring through the sky in wonder at the expansiveness of nature. It helped that the movie is so stunning to look at.
      The animators definitely did their research, both on the rider/mount relationship and on animal behavior. It’s impressive that they can make the dragons feel so real, like they’re truly living and breathing things that we’re witnessing on film. The way they move and act just feels so authentic.
      Dragons are such a key aspect of so many mythologies, and I loved what they did with the first film, I just struggle to so easily dismiss the things that you chalk up to “Hollywood”. I still have high hopes for the sequel, and I’m excited to see what they bring next, I just want more than what we got in this film.
      I love hearing your opinions, and I’m so glad you stopped by to tell me what you thought. Even if we might have had different reactions, you’ve made me take a step back and find more things to love about the film, even if there are things I dislike. Thanks for always being awesome!

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      • I find it interesting and useful to have someone really analyze films like this, as I tend to react on an instinctive and artistic level (whoa, that looks great!).

        I’m also looking forward to the next one, and hoping they don’t just “go Hollywood”.

        While I found Valka and Astrid and whichever RuffTuffnut is the girl to be interesting and very cool (as in: there’s me trying to be that when I was 23…), I agree with our other commenter and the dissolve feature on Strong Women in films.

        Well, maybe the next one will take it up to the real next level…

        Carry on and ride a Night Fury.

        Like

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