How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) / Animation-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Running Time: 102 min.
Cast (voices): Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig
Director: Dean DeBlois
Screenplay: Dean DeBlois (inspired by the "How to Train Your Dragon" book series by Cressida Cowell)
Review published June 14, 2014
In what will likely go down as my personal pick for the most disappointing film of 2014, given my lofty expectations going in, How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes just about every character I grew to cherish from the phenomenally enjoyable How to Train Your Dragon and replaces them with more annoying, less interesting caricatures.
Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch), who co-wrote and co-directed the first entry along with Chris Sanders, is given the entire kit and caboodle this time around and seems to have fumbled the ball without that creative partner to bounce ideas off of. DeBlois is far more interested in turning the series into the next Star Wars (indeed, DeBlois himself claims to have modeled this second film as The Empire Strikes Back), that he has completely lost sight on the simple pleasures of the Cressida Cowell series of books. Gone are the themes of the value of friendship and the beauty of flight, and in their place are musty plot points revolving around revenge and domination, with a basic story of a madman trying to crush everyone else, just because he can, and the rebels who dare to thwart that unstoppable evil empire from happening. Sound familiar?
That madman is a warlord named Drago Bludvist (Hounsou, Baggage Claim), and he is out to accumulate every dragon he can to join his already massive army out to conquer the world. As the citizens of Berk have decided to become dragon-riders, and Drago wants to trap those dragons (especially the rare Night Fury, Toothless), this is going to mean big battles between those who want to live in harmony with the dragons and those who want to enslave them. After his experience discovering the feared dragons are actually not bad, Hiccup (Baruchel, RoboCop) seeks a peaceful, diplomatic solution, ignoring his father's warnings from his prior dealings with Drago, only to find that there are indeed bad things in this world. However, he finds an ally with the dragon-loving Valka (Blanchett, The Monuments Men), a 'dragon whisperer' of sorts, who is the proprietor of a vast dragon sanctuary.
As you can tell from this plot summary, what had made Hiccup so special in the first film has been all but completely taken away for this second. In the 2010 release, it is Hiccup who discovers that dragons aren't the awesome, fear-inducing, evil creatures that humanity has been battling for centuries, but they are magical beasts who can be befriended, domesticated, and loved just like any other animal. And now we discover with just about every other character that we meet outside of Berk that Hiccup was not only beaten to the punch in terms of being able to wrangle these dragons to submit, but that they have far exceeded his once-thought-unique abilities a hundred-fold. It's really not so special that Hiccup has trained a dragon and shown others how to do it when just about anyone can and has once he ventures out of his home isle It makes the people of Berk seem like the most isolated dimwits imaginable.
The movie also doesn't make us care about the characters the way we should. We are given a major character revelation about one of the new characters (the trailer gives it away, but I won't), and yet it curiously feels like a gimmick rather than a development of organic narrative choice. Later in the film, we have the demise of one of the characters, and how it plays out doesn't manage to resonate emotionally. Again, it feels like it is used more like a rationale for a plot turn and not something necessary to bring profundity to the story. There's a whiz-bang quality to the battles, but it's all too noisy and congested until the last few moments after several pointless minutes of CGI-infused mayhem. The seriousness of these war sequences is often undercut by ill-timed, not-very-funny quipping by its cute-but-moronic supporting characters. Even if it looks spiffy, DeBlois is befuddled on how to make us care about it, which for a film trying to continue off of its predecessor's overwhelming charm, makes it a frustration to keep from zoning out during sizable portions of the film.
Perhaps the only thing I enjoy is merely a carryover from the first film: it looks great. Working yet again with acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, the use of light and shadow, foreground and background, is truly breathtaking to behold. The character models aren't particularly complex compared to similar animated films, but the texture of rock formations, clouds, and the ocean are spectacular, and there are few films of any variety that have captured the beauty of flight as much as these films have. However, even here, I find it hard to praise this sequel because all of these visuals were done in the 2010 release, so we're not seeing much new except for a handful of new characters that aren't really very well thought out, and a few new dragon models that are largely forgettable, save for the gargantuan "alpha dragon", which I will admit is very impressive in its size and scope.
One other thing I will mention to its credit, which makes its predecessor better if not this continuation, is that it explains away a few of the quibbles I had regarding the first film. This sequel is set five years after the first film, and if it is true, as one character points out, that Hiccup is 20 years old now, that he was in his mid teens in the first film, which makes Jay Baruchel's vocals more consistent with a teenage boy's and not a young boy as I imagined him to be based on appearance. Not that I wouldn't have preferred someone else cast in the vocal role anyway, as Baruchel's voice is distracting at best, and generally grating to my own ears. Another nitpick explained: we learn that Hiccup's father, Stoick (Butler, PS I Love You) is the sole survivor from the village of his youth, and this could explain why his Scottish brogue is so much different than most of the other characters.
However, narrative explanations aside, this story just lacks sizzle in conception and is bogged down by sluggish pacing, resulting in a film that isn't even half as enjoyable, funny, whimsical, or romantic as its predecessor. In short, it is boring and not particularly fun to watch even when it does manage to stumble into something of interest. DeBlois has shoehorned the characters into a much different sort of film, and he has succeeded only in taking what was once a refreshing and optimistic potential franchise and has made it just another epic that would rather deliver grandiose visual flourishes than originality or more complex character beats.
While I'm all for the ultimate message that it's better to live in harmony with nature than exploit it, it is virtually the message of nearly every animated epic these days. How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like that once magically transcendent, enchanting thing that has been wrangled into submission, controlled and forced to bend to traditional ways of thinking.
©2014 Vince Leo