Four years ago Dreamworks Animation surprised a great deal of people: How to Train Your Dragon was a very good movie which didn’t rely on pointless popculture jokes. A feat even more impressive when one considers that in the same year Shrek Forever After was released. Now we get a sequel to the beloved original and like many sequels the scope gets bigger while the characters suffer under this weight.
Eventually one is left with the feeling that How to Train Your Dragon is more or less ok which is disappointing after the high expectations for this sequel.
The world become bigger and less logical
At the end of How to Train Your Dragon pretty much every conflict had been resolved. Two peoples had discarded their prejudice and now peacefully co-existed. But when our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless seek to expand their maps they come across the henchmen of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou) who is enslaving dragons instead of taming them.
On top of that there is a storyline about one of Hiccup’s family members (which was already bee. spoiled in the trailers but since it gets revealed early on rest assured if you thought the marketing had spoiled the ending). And even though the movie only runs 1h 45min it feels crammed with so many plots that don’t quite gel.
The scope is so much larger compared to part 1. As with any sequel to a movie which wrapped up all the conflicts at the end this one introduces new characters with ties to the ones we know. The villain himself has terrorized Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) years ago but this begs the question of why these two worlds (one featuring dragon armies, one being at the mercy of wild dragons) haven’t interacted before.
From Way better than Avatar to Avatar
One of the things I really liked about the first part of this series was that it felt like a spiritual remake of Avatar. It was about two cultures at war and a protagonist who made contact with the supposed enemy, only to find out that things aren’t so black and white. Ironically this children’s animated version of Avatar had much more complexity and gravitas to it than James Cameron’s epic. The bond between Toothless and Hiccup held everything together and people like Hiccup’s father might have been as thick as their name suggests but they were not stupid.
Where Avatar resorted to the biggest action possible How to Train Your Dragon aimed for a peaceful resolution. Sure in the end there was a fat dragon to put the blame on but at least the rest of the characters weren’t so deliberately ignorant.
And a tiny flaw like this might be fixed by the sequel…
Except that this is where the dragon crashes in midair. When Hiccup sets out to convince Drago Bludvist that there is no need to enslave the dragons one starts to hope that once again this series will seek out a consensus. But instead this time the lesson is that there are evil people doing evil stuff because they want to be evil. It might have been a bit more interesting if there had been more layers to Drago but he gets introduced so late in the movie I started wondering if another character might actually be the villain. After all the flashback never showed Bludvist’s face.
Yet as soon as Bludvist appears we are in standard storytelling mode and some people are good while others are inherently evil.
Darkness and Narnia
One of the things that How to Train Your Dragon did so well was that it didn’t seek out the violence or had action for the sake of action. The flight sequences were mostly about bonding and the act of killing was always something very horrendous. Even more significant: the movie left protagonist Hiccup crippled at the end of the story so there was another element of gravitas to the movie.
The sequel now tries to outdo this but it falls into the same trap that the Narnia movies did. While there is an undercurrent of trying to understand the different sides it eventually boils down to battle. But since this is a children’s film the violence can’t really be displayed. So now we have armies of soldiers clashing against dragonriders with fatal casualties. Dragonfire is only used against inanimate objects like siege towers and people are only knocked unconscious.
There is one move that really screams “DARK!” and while it certainly is the emotional high point, it once again goes the safest route possible by having the character beint not directly responsible for his horrible action. Initially it feels very dramatic but the conflict is not between the two characters but between Hiccup and Bludvist because Bludvist forced this action to happen.
Film: How To Train Your Dragon 2
Of course the movie is not terrible. If you expect basic entertainment you will get your money’s worth. But to me it simply wasn’t enough. If you set the bar so high that you become a viable contender for Best Animated Feature against Toy Story 3 (or at least gain enough people to be passionate enough to want you to win the Oscar) then “just ok” is a pretty big disappointment. The things the movie does well are the things that are carried over from part One. The new characters are simple and standard and the message is just another “let’s smash everybody who doesn’t love freedom” which results in a final monologue that could be played during an Independence Day celebration.