Not that this is what makes me special, but I was a big fan of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie. Personally, I’d put it neck-and-neck with Shrek in the limited lineup of great Dreamworks movies. It even stands tall amongst the larger competition — at one point you might have caught me making semi-outrageous claims like “This should have beaten out Toy Story 3 for the Best Animated Oscar.”
Given all that, hopefully I don’t have to prove that was rooting for How to Train Your Dragon 2 to be good. It started out strong, with some great flying footage and a promising sense of newness, but then the seams started to show. As we rolled through the first act, it seemed to be having a hard time getting off the ground. Still there were several places places where I thought, “Oh, okay, now it’s gonna start going somewhere.”
Then, at a certain point, I realized that I was just kinda wrong about that.
Before we go any further, let’s outline the stuff that this movie does really well, because it does certain things VERY well. For example, it crafts a number of super-evocative sequences that really blow away most of what’s being done in American animation these days. Think of bits like the airborne meeting between Hiccup and his still-masked mother, or the image of a cave lit only by fire burning in the mouths of a dozen dragons. Crazy cool images all over the place.
Even better, the imagery serves the human-scale storyline. HtTYD2 basically becomes a kaiju movie in a few places; there are some cool fights that involve ancient, massive beasts of legend. These fights aren’t just for show; they illuminate our characters’ struggles. Sometimes in pretty literal fashion. One sequence memorably places an earth-shaking brawl in the background that perfectly mimics the foreground hand-to-hand combat between our major characters.
I would never complain about this.
So, in some senses, the second How to Train Your Dragon is a bold expansion of what the first movie did. It’s a crying shame, then that all that accomplished imagery was at the service of a story that’s simply not all that good.
I’m about to go into spoiler territory, so if that bothers you I suggest exiting the article now and coming back once you’ve seen the thing.
The word that kept popping into my mind as I sat through How to Train Your Dragon 2 was “cluttered.” It’s a word I’ve had on my mind a lot this year (coughWinterSoldiercough), but it’s somewhat odd to find it in a sequel to one of the most elegant American animated films of the past ten years. But there it is regardless.
For starters, HtTYD2 does that thing where certain characters keep showing up but never do anything beyond some minor plot-mechanic stuff. Subplots go nowhere, like the one where the potentially intriguing character voiced by Kit Harrington winds up being a complete waste of screentime. There’s some vague gestures towards his moral transformation, and one of the other boring side characters ogles him a lot, but none of it amounts to anything.
Story beats are repeated to an almost comical degree. How many times do people catch up to Hiccup, only to have him escape again? Three?
Worse: The villain is pointless, too. Sure, he technically plays in the story, but there’s nothing he does that couldn’t be done by someone else. In fact, it’s hard to understand why the antagonist role wasn’t filled by the mother… she’s a new character, she automatically has a pre-existing relationship to Hiccup and to Stoick, and she has the exact same power as the big bad. Redundant, much?
Especially since one of the things that made the first movie so mature for its medium was its staunch refusal to treat anybody like a villain. Its conflict come almost exclusively from the honest tension caused by ignorance and conflicting worldviews. A lesser movie would have simply made Stoick into a cartoon bad guy.
This sequel is that lesser movie. Bloodfist is a total joke, a gravel-voiced gorilla with delusions of grandeur. It’s like a bad Marvel villain crashed one of the most refreshingly human children’s franchises around, literally interrupting the more interesting family story just… because we have to have a bad guy, I guess. Maybe they just felt like killing Stoick, and couldn’t figure out a way for a non-villain to do the deed.
Unfortunately, Stoick’s death was cheap, and yet another story element that didn’t add nearly enough to justify its inclusion. Agent Coulson’s death had way more impact on the characters and story of The Avengers, with numerous callbacks for the rest of the movie, and he barely cracks the top ten of the important characters in that flick. Stoick is basically forgotten two minutes after they set his corpse on fire — it seems that the main deal with him dying was forcing Hiccup to take the throne. Someone had the nerve to compare this scene to Mufasa’s death in The Lion King, an iconic turn of events that a) is built up way better than this one and b) has massive, undeniable ramifications for every single other character in the story. Don’t even go there.
Anyway, given that the mother wasn’t the antagonist, I really dig the idea of a family united in the face of danger, but Stoick’s semi-crass death robs us of that pleasure as well. In fact, other than making way for Hiccup, it’s hard to see how losing Stoick finishes out his own arc, or feeds into Valka’s in any way. Their earlier reunion scene is admittedly touching but… I don’t know to what end.
In the first How to Train Your Dragon, pretty much everybody had their own little story to work through. Astrid, Stoick, Toothless… all of these characters have noticeable (if simple) transformations to undergo. Not the case here. Toothless is the only major character (other than Hiccup) with something approaching a transformation, but even that one is pretty truncated and forced. There’s no moment of realization or catharsis that rivals the first movie’s budding friendship between Toothless and Hiccup, or the moment where Stoick realizes he may have lost his son.
The movie’s clutter extends to the moment-to-moment pacing of the scenes, too. Characters spend whole scenes just kinda talking at each other; several exchanges felt plagued by the same rambling, unfocused rhythm.* Jokes popped up seemingly at random, and scenes with real dramatic heft routinely got undercut by a cheap gag. I get that it’s a family movie that demands a light touch, but there’s a difference between having a good sense of humor and simply throwing jokes around.
Unfortunately, the movie’s thesis is the final victim of its clutter. Again, part of what made the first movie the instant semi-classic that it is, is that it had something to say and said it with a clarity and understanding that was honestly kind of shocking. The disparate story threads in this sequel — Hiccup’s growing responsibility, Valka’s return to the tribe, Bloodfist’s goofball campaign, Kit Harrington’s biceps — never really cohere into a strong statement of any sort.**
Is the movie terrible? Nah, not really. It seemed to play pretty well in the crowd, and there’s the aforementioned list of memorable moments. Still, it’s a movie that should be far more ambitious and sophisticated than it ultimately is. Never thought I’d be saying at this point in the year that The Lego Movie is a clearly superior feature to the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon. I really tried to get onboard with this one.
But sometimes you can’t fake the fall when a movie doesn’t land its punches.
*It’s kind of a character thing for Hiccup, but this goes beyond mere affectation. Usually bad dialogue doesn’t bother me (ask anyone around here), but goodness this stuff was driving me up the wall. Just listen to how many lines are wasted anytime Hiccup has to tell his dad something important.
**I really thought they might go somewhere ballsy with the whole “you can’t negotiate with everybody” thing, but mainly they just used that as an excuse to blast Bloodfist away in an oddly vague death scene.