I don’t worship at the feet of the original How To Train Your Dragon like many do, but I really enjoyed the film nonetheless. Everything with Hiccup and Toothless was FANTASTIC in the first film and anything that involved the two had weight and stakes due to how much we cared for those guys. Sadly, the sequel puts their relationship, and the dragons in general, into the background. Quite literally, there is a whole other movie going on right behind the endless expository scenes involving the humans; a more interesting and entertaining looking one at that.
The focus of the film becomes squarely on that of Hiccup, his family and the humans, otherwise known as the most rote and worst parts of the original film. I am all for trying to get to know these characters better, but outside an attempt at deepening Hiccup’s back story, there is no growth or characters beats for just about anybody in the film. The only character with an arc in the film is Eret, a new character who poaches dragon’s for the film’s big bad, but it is so forced and familiar it barely counts for anything. All the idiot kids from the village are still idiot kids from the village, only now they can all ride dragons fairly well. There is no attempt to show how these characters have changed or grow in the five years since the last film other than Astrid has become a pretty good girlfriend to Hiccup.
I knew this film was in trouble when the sequence they pulled out for that amazing teaser trailer, Hiccup and Toothless flying together, appears very early in the film and instead of being set to John Powell’s fantastic score, they lay a TERRIBLE pop song over it. The song is so bad it ruined a scene that took my breath away in the teaser. It’s almost as lame as the blatant quidditch rip off that they created to bookend the film.
*****Spoilers Starting Here*****
Hiccup’s story does have the film’s one great sequence, and that involves him meeting his mother, Valka, for the first time and discovering what happened to her over the last twenty years. While it doesn’t make sense to imply Hiccup is this great dragon tamer because of his mother, everyone in Berk can do it to, the visuals and storytelling is never any sharper than it is during their prolonged sequence. Sadly, this is fairly early in the film and it is mostly downhill from there on out.
When Hiccup’s dad, Stoick, shows up on Valka’s island, the old lovers reunion is very sweet for the most part, but there are some subservient female tropes underlying their big reunion that could be called problematic. Valka is this grand master of dragons, making a life for herself all on her own for the last twenty years, and the instant her man shows up, claiming to be a changed man, she runs right back into his arms. Yes, I know she was torn from her family. Yes, we know Stoick really is a changed man when it comes to dragons. Yes, I can see her desire to want to be back with her son as a big reason she agrees to be a family again. But her decision comes right on the heels of being swooned by her man and plays more as a connection to Stoick more than anything else. Are these themes that troubling in the context of the film, not really, and Astrid is a pretty great heroine of her own (about the only thing I can stand out of the misfit crew), but that reading is there. When you are as bored by this film as I was you can’t help but notice things like this. The most egregious thing about all of this family drama is that it is built up only with the intent to ruin it all only a couple of scenes later.
You might have noticed I have barely said anything about Toothless in this review, the number one thing that people loved the most from the original, and that is because he is barely a factor in the film. In fact, Toothless’ biggest moment of the film is when he is turned into a sort of slave zombie and attempts to kill Hiccup, only to murder Stoick instead. Toothless murders Stoick in this film! Granted, Toothless wasn’t in control of himself, but having Toothless be the tool to kill off Hiccup’s father does nothing to help anything. The big bad, Drago, killing Stoick directly would have made a lot more sense, both for the plot and making that character truly evil. Especially when all is forgiven with Toothless not even before the scene ends. Hiccup gets mad at Toothless lying over the dead body of Stoick and that is all the film gets emotionally out of this crazy act. Yes, we get to see the mind control powers of Drago’s Alpha, but even that is thwarted rather easily in the finale.
Speaking of that finale, the overall message of the film is bothersome as well. The first How to Train Your Dragon was about the little guy/different dragon coming into their own and succeeding regardless of their shortcomings, the sequel is about becoming the Alpha male who rules everyone. Both Hiccup and Toothless ascend to the equivalent kings of their respective kingdoms at the end of the film and the big take away seems to be that you need to be the Alpha of your life or you are a failure. Hiccup is the heir to be the chief of Berk, but I would think the film would have been a bit more progressive and inclusive given that the message with the dragons is that anyone can do it. Or why not make Valka the ruler of Berk? Regardless of the human angle, I don’t understand how the Alpha dragon control power is passed from one beast to another.
The story for How To Train Your Dragon 2 also feels incomplete, more of a series of set pieces that never finds a resolution. Anyone who complains about Marvel movies just setting up the next one (which they do, but they also don’t, each Marvel movie has its own self contained tale at its core with threads on the edges leading to the universe as a whole) and doesn’t give this movie the same flack is a hypocrite. Drago is barely realized here and only built up to live another day. The last sequence feels so flat when nothing really happens but Toothless shooting a couple fireballs and the Drago slinks away with ease. All the exposition and flashback in the film sets up new elements to this world, or fills in backstory, but none of it really pays off unless it is being used to get to the next scene. How to Train Your Dragon 2 would have been better served using that time expanding the depths of its characters to broaden the world.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t improve on anything but its visuals (which are gorgeous) and focuses on all the wrong things from the first film. Gone is the sense of humor, kinship, discovery and fun that the original had, instead the sequel is filled with ham-fisted exposition and world building that never pays off. I don’t know what happened here, but it isn’t good, How to Train Your Dragon 2 fails on almost every level. At least it is beautiful to look at.
How to Train Your Dragon is a D (solely because of its visuals, otherwise an F)
P.S. The 3D is also excellent, if that is your thing.