How To Train Your Dragon 2, the long-awaited sequel to the acclaimed 2010 film, is a movie brimming with sincerity and ideas. It’s just unfortunate that the script is too unfocused for its own concepts to be fully realized.
The story picks up five years after the events of the first film. The island of Berk remains a changed society where dragons and Vikings now live in harmony and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless spend their time exploring the surrounding islands. They come across a group of dragon trappers led by Eret son of Eret (Kit Harington) who work for the ominously named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who plans to start a war that threatens everyone in their world, human and dragon alike.
There’s a lot to love about this film. The animation is spectacular, both in the textured details and the exhilarating action sequences. The art direction maintains the first film’s distinct, earthily-toned aesthetic even as the movie expands its world to accommodate new landscapes and characters. John Powell’s score is gorgeous, with enough motifs from the oscar-nominated original to feel familiar but not rehashed. Several of my concerns regarding the writing proved unfounded. Astrid serves as more than Hiccup’s supportive girlfriend and actually moves the plot forward and Toothless remains more than Hiccup’s pet as his connection to Hiccup plays a pivotal role in the third act.
Like its predecessor, the film’s greatest strength is its willingness to emotionally challenge its young audience. The scene in which Hiccup’s long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), lists the injuries her dragons sustained from the dragon trappers is pretty brave in a movie marketed to families. Furthermore, the plot is full of legitimately unexpected developments. The official trailer‘s reveal that Valka is Hiccup’s mother was careless but it doesn’t deplete the movie of twists. Toothless’ turn on Hiccup at the command of the Alpha was genuinely startling and Stoick’s death was every bit as shocking as, well, a major character’s death in a children’s film sequel should be. The movie understands that a sequel has to up the ante from its predecessor and it does so brilliantly.
Unfortunately, the movie is better at setting up conflicts than resolving them and it suffers for giving its many thematic threads and character arcs hasty, half-baked conclusions. Hiccup’s reluctance to become chief is resolved when he … becomes chief, though perhaps we’re supposed to take his line, “A chief protects his own” as an indication that he’s developed the leadership skills he felt he lacked. Drago’s backstory and evil plan are vague. Eret’s heel-face-turn from bad to good is too fast. Hiccup and Stoick are veeeery forgiving of Valka’s abandonment and Valka’s conflict over returning to Berk is also quickly resolved, though never for any specific reason.
What’s most frustrating about How To Train Your Dragon 2, though, is that it comes so close to touching upon something important- and rare- for a children’s film: revenge and the origins of hatred. I’m not joking (and I refer those who think I’m asking too much of a kid’s movie to The Fox and the Found and the first How To Train Your Dragon movie).
During the battle on the shores of Valka’s island, I was feeling pretty detached- almost bored. Then Drago told Hiccup how his vendetta against dragons spawned from witnessing his family’s death and I thought, “what this movie needs is a character’s death to draw a parallel between Hiccup and Drago to demonstrate how hatred can make a villain out of an otherwise good person. But, of course, the movie won’t do that.”
And then Stoick was killed. What’s more, he was killed by Toothless. Glory be unto heaven, the adorable dragon who made this face just killed the hero’s dad. The movie had handed itself a beautifully dark gift, oozing relevance and depth and insight and complexity and then … did nothing with it.
After an initial grief-stricken outburst, Hiccup overcomes his anger at Toothless and resolves to rescue him, later assuring Toothless while coaxing him out of the Alpha’s control that it wasn’t his fault. The potential for an end-of-act-two low point during which Hiccup expresses the same hatred that Drago feels and realizes that he has the potential to become Drago if he gives into it (think Harry Potter and Tom Riddle) was utterly, utterly wasted.
If they’d followed through with that set up, embellished Drago’s backstory and implied that Stoick’s hatred for dragons was exacerbated by Valka’s “death,” the movie could have offered its young audience a pretty sophisticated message about revenge, hatred and choice (something the dragons lack under the Alpha but … I’ll let that go). But nope. Instead, for a theme we get Hiccup monologuing about peace, which rings pretty hollow since Hiccup’s conviction that he could reason with Drago proved false and the Alpha was defeated in a fight.
In many ways How To Train Your Dragon 2 does surpass the first film. It’s less formulaic, the scope is wider, the stakes are higher and it takes more risks. But it feels scattered. Though the first How To Train Your Dragon movie tells a simpler story, its message is clearer and therefore deeper: hatred is built upon ignorance and can only be overcome through understanding. Hiccup learns this during the “Forbidden Friendship” montage, Astrid learns this during her “Romantic Flight” scene and Stoick learns this when Toothless saves Hiccup. It’s a simple lesson, but it works because it’s integral to the complete arc of the story. How To Train Your Dragon 2, while more ambitious, feels too disjointed to be as affective.
When all is said and done, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a strong film that’s leaps and bounds better than most media created for children. It takes risks, it’s beautifully animated and scored, it takes its audience seriously and it knows how to balance pathos and humor. However, key moments that could have really set this movie apart are underwritten making the emotional arc (and in some ways the movie as a whole) more memorable for its wasted potential than for what it actually delivers.