How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
Starring- Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington
Director- Dean DeBlois
PG- adventure action and some mild rude humor
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy sequel, albeit, in some ways, what you’d expect — inferior to its predecessor, with all of its best moments feeling like imitations of what worked the first time around. At the same time, its sometimes-courageous defiance of the ordinary tropes of modern sequels elevates it, despite its flaws, to a much-higher standing than a lot of the other franchise continuations in theaters this summer.
Five years after the events of the first film, all is well on the island of Berk. The Vikings and the dragons are now getting on swimmingly — every Viking now has a dragon friend of his or her very own, and they spend all of their free time playing games and racing across the island. Plus, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a hero to the community and one of the island’s most widely beloved inhabitants, to the point that his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the chief, is now officially grooming him to be his successor.
Hiccup, however, is more interested in exploring. He spends his days with his dragon, Toothless, flying off into the sunset, searching for new places. On one expedition, he stumbles across an icy fortress that turns out to be a sanctuary for dragons of all kinds — one safeguarded by his long-missing mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). He also discovers the reason for this safe haven — Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), an old foe of the Vikings who is building an army of dragons to aid him in his conquest of the world.
And once Drago hears of the dragon-masters of Berk, he makes that his next target.
I’ve come to expect a lot of things of sequels in this day and age. They follow the same basic formula so often that I began to accept it as the new normal. We get one movie that works really well, so we get a sequel, and that sequel mostly does the same thing — just insert a new conflict into the same old world and characters and engineer some fun spectacle around it, roll credits. Making those sequels is more a question of brainstorming ways to force another story out of the universe than in capitalizing on deliberate unresolved implications of the first film. Essentially, I don’t expect sequels to really continue the story in any way or to drive it in an interesting new direction.
So, How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is a breath of fresh air. It starts out like a movie that’s simply conjuring up excuses to put the old characters through a new adventure, but it turns into something that’s actually following up on the implications of the last movie and creating implications of its own that I imagine we’ll see dealt with in How to Train Your Dragon 3.
It manifests even in the small things — like How to Train Your Dragon 2 taking place five years after its predecessor. If you pay attention, most sequels don’t really specify exactly how much time has elapsed since the last movie. I figure it’s because that means they don’t really have to think about how the core relationships have changed over time or anything like that. Five years, though, that’s a significant absence for this franchise in particular. That means the characters were teenagers in the first movie, and they’re adults now. They have to be different. Their roles and responsibilities have to be different.
That means the movie can’t just repeat the first one’s character arcs. Hiccup can’t be a sullen teenage outsider trying to fit in. Now, he’s an adult, and he primarily needs to figure out what he wants out of his life — and that mainly means figuring out what it means to be a leader, now that his father is looking to confer that status upon him very soon.
And his relationship with girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) can’t be what it was in the first movie either. They’re not teenagers navigating awkward feelings anymore. They’re in a serious relationship, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 is talking about the potential of their marriage.
And fortunately, the film capitalizes in that in what it adds to the saga. This movie is not interested in maintaining the status quo; actually, in several ways, it shatters it completely. How to Train Your Dragon 3 simply cannot be the same movie that either of its predecessors were, because too much changes before the credits roll here.
I can’t understate how much all of this matters to the effectiveness of the story itself. When people and situations and communities are capable of change, that has the effect of making what happens in the story matter. It lends significance to the proceedings. Moreover, it makes things a touch unpredictable because you know that realistic consequences are a possible end result of any given action or experience.
Of course, that alone doesn’t do it. You also need characters you believe in, relationships you care about, and a story that knows how to tie those things into the larger part of what’s going on. And like the first movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, leaves you with very little to complain about on that front. I’d actually argue it improves on some of those things — my biggest complaint about the first movie, the modernity and obnoxious self-awareness of the comedic supporting characters, has been dialed down significantly this time around.
But it still can’t help but feel, occasionally, like a shadow of its former self. The freshness and surprise of the original — an animated film shot and lit like a live action film and capable of capturing the magic and intensity of flight in a way that some of the biggest spectacles of all time could not — is mostly gone. How to Train Your Dragon 2 goes out of its way on a number of occasions to recreate some of the highlights of the first movie — dreamlike, romantic flights; sequences of bombastic adventuring; some of the humor; etc. — and it all feels much more put-upon this time, less a natural consequence of the story and more something that was shoehorned into it.
Part of the problem, I think, is the apparent split between writer-director team Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Only the former has returned for this film. And honestly, I don’t think either of them has done anything alone that even comes close to what they made together. They seem to have been a team in the most important sense, in that they had different skillsets and covered for one another’s weaknesses. Based on their solo work, DeBlois seems to be the one who knows how to structure a story and bring a sense of import to it. He can engage the audience’s emotions. Sanders, on the other hand, seems to be the better world-builder, and also has a stronger comedic sensibility. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t as funny as the first one, which, admittedly, isn’t that big of a problem, since it mostly isn’t trying all that hard. But it’s also a faster film that spends less time with its characters and in its world and moves everyone from plot point to plot point much more hastily — enough so that it starts to become a problem. How to Train Your Dragon had me from the opening scene. How to Train Your Dragon 2 took until the really important things finally started happening.
And while I’m not quite sure which of the directors is more talented in this regard, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is much looser thematically than its predecessor. I’m not saying that either film tackles particularly complex themes — they’re kids’ movies, after all. The first movie had a simple but effective moral of finding unexpected qualities in the misfits and the outcasts, and of the importance of understanding someone before automatically making him or her your enemy. Those two concepts are closely related to begin with, but what really makes them work is the way everything the film does builds into those ideas. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is messier. There’s a bit about leadership and a bit about family and a smaller bit related to the first movie’s ideas, and it’s all over the place and sometimes seems more like a happy accident. The film’s numerous messages fight for screen-time rather than co-existing in a harmonious flow, and some of them don’t feel as though they’ve been meaningfully resolved by the time the movie ends.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here — from the characters to the spot-on direction or the occasional riskiness of the story. There’s a boldness to the proceedings that’s lacking in far too many movies, and I’m pleased that DreamWorks Animation allowed that to happen. For once, I’m anticipating the third entry not because I’d feel okay about taking another, unrelated adventure with these characters but because I’m genuinely interested in what it does with the story’s changed circumstances and how it, in turn, develops them.