It feels unfair to criticize How To Train Your Dragon despite the notable flaws that it so obviously had, perhaps because what comparatively little it had to offer in terms of originality, story advancement, comedy, setting, scope, and even closure, the heartbeat at its core was more palpable and riveting than anything else DreamWorks Animation had ever made (on a raw dramatic level anyway). The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless evoked every bit the fantastical awe of self-discovery that all of us yearn for. In a story about how human physical limitation and the willingness to overcome it can expand our capabilities and solve problems, came the bonds of friendship between a man and a dragon. Hiccup found his strength & courage and discovered talents he never knew he had through his virtue and curiosity, and Toothless not only regained his flight but learned that humankind was capable of kindness and love, and were worth befriending instead of burning.
Very much a spiritual DreamWorks Animation sequel (and a spectacular-looking one to say the least), How To Train Your Dragon 2 finds its ambitions in nearly everything the first film didn’t do, but without losing the emotional resonance and character integrity that made it so great. It’s well paced and staggeringly well animated, balancing out the dizzying rush of sheep-Quiddich racing and thrilling air chases with the grace and calm of its relaxing moments that revel in the freedom of flight and contribute to the scope of nature in the world they inhabit, where dragons swim through the air like the free-floating community of fish in the sky that they are.
Set five years after the events of the first film, Dragon 2 begins with Berk flourishing from its peaceful coexistence with dragons. Hiccup and Toothless have been spending their time exploring and mapping more of the world as they see it together, and thus Hiccup has also been avoiding some of his current and future responsibilities to his village that his father wants to prepare him for. When one close encounter reveals the existence of a ruthless conqueror -Drago Bludvist, Hiccup, Astrid, and their friends Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut & Ruffnut become caught up in a much bigger conflict, one that also leads to the discovery of Hiccup’s long lost and presumed dead mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett).
If you’ve seen the trailers and extended clips, you’re probably under the impression that this film has spoiled almost everything, but you’ll be pleased to know that Dragon 2 is holding more than a few surprises behind its story. Hiccup’s good natured belief in reason and giving peace a chance is very much the driving force behind his actions, and here you see where that comes from, as well as how wounded he is when some of his efforts fall to pieces.
The biggest problem Dragon 2 has is that even though it does great work reminding us why Hiccup and Toothless are such compelling characters, it nonetheless leans on the first film for emotional support more than it probably should have. This is a different problem from most sequels that often rely on you knowing all the details of the previous story to understand the threads, which thankfully this film doesn’t do. Dragon 2 still has the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless at the center of the story, but when other dragons get involved and when the film moves to distinguish how Hiccup and Drago view and treat these dragons and escalate these differences to the climax, what’s there doesn’t completely work, in part because of how the emphasis shifts to Valka, whose character function predominantly paints broader strokes on the world (by itself not a problem), but also because the resolution in large part relies on you not just knowing that Hiccup and Toothless are best friends, but understanding why.
That problem might have been avoided if the film had taken a little more care to not leave so many early threads dangling. Drago is voiced exceedingly well by Djimon Hounsou, but he isn’t developed much at all as a character. The supporting characters, including Astrid, have even less to do. Where in the first film, seeing their parallel path of growth based on the plans their village set for them was crucial to appreciating how Hiccup was forging his own and how that was making him better, Dragon 2 only seems to be interested in using them as support for Hiccup in tight spots. They’re still fun, but that’s kind of it.
When Drago makes his big move, the story takes an unexpectedly darker turn, to the point where I was wondering if it was going to end right there. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. Dragon 2 makes its characters resolve the conflict the way they would, and it really sticks to its landing. I can’t say that everything in it made sense, but it was pretty hard to care when I was having that much fun. This is a campy crowd-pleasing cartoon and writer/director Dean DeBlois did a great job treating it that way.
While the flaws are plentiful, Dragon 2 still soars mostly because of how far it wishes to go with Hiccup’s character arc and how confidently it handles it, but also in large part because of how the animation effects, color schemes, and art design saturate the bigger picture. Even when the story appears aimless, the world in its greater scope still feels deeply enriched and vibrant, with the audience put right alongside Hiccup and Toothless as they go farther and deeper into the sanctuaries of nature’s most regal yet fearsome creatures. When we are introduced to Valka, the actual spectacle becomes even more important, and DeBlois keeps the energy going.
DeBlois has mentioned in previous interviews that he intends this film to be the middle-act of a trilogy, but I’m not so sure that I want one. Not that I think there isn’t room for another, but Dragon 2’s adult-like ending really seemed like the perfect place to leave the characters.
Though I wouldn’t put it over the first film, I really liked How To Train Your Dragon 2 both as a worthy sequel and as an exciting family-friendly blockbuster. Take your kids, get your 3D glasses, and enjoy yourself.
The Good: Hiccup, Toothless, Stoick, Valka, all the voice acting, the animation, the effects, the 3D, and the excitement, the twists, the emotional beats.
The Bad: Not the most original sequel story, a lot of underdeveloped threads, and the overall resonance is just a bit thinner than the first movie.
The Toothless: He plays nice with the kids.