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.