The armored, animated characters in How to Train Your Dragon 2 have certainly grown up since the first film amassed a whopping $495 million at the worldwide box office. However, has the franchise, written and directed by Dean DeBlois, grown up with these characters? The answer is yes and no. The follow-up has both the solemnity and big story turns that made The Empire Strikes Back a superior sequel, as well as the cartoonish, kid-oriented set pieces that made Return of the Jedi more of a family-friendly adventure. Trying to aim at the adults moved by the poignancy of its predecessor and the kids, who were wowed by the physical comedy and animation, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sometimes clashes in its need to serve both audiences. Regardless, the fantasy soars more than it sinks.
The film kicks off with the triumphant tenor of John Powell’s score (he earned an Oscar nomination for the first film). Young Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) swoops and glides on his Night Fury dragon, the loyal Toothless, through the waters around the kingdom of Berk, hoping to explore the outskirts of the land. Baruchel sounds less nasally than in the first film, a vocal choice that puts Hiccup through puberty – even though he only has a faint trim of facial hair in this chapter.
Along with his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara), Hiccup discovers an icy island and a marauding gang of dragon trappers, led by the burly Eret (Kit Harrington). Eret and his crew must hunt the winged creatures and capture to them to satisfy their commander, the muscular, dreadlocked conqueror Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Hiccup returns to Berk to tell his boldly bearded dad Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) of this corruption, which could lead to a showdown between dragon armies.
Meanwhile, there is another warrior building a force of dragons nearby, although her intentions are to nurture them as gentle creatures instead of training them as vicious beasts. Her name is Valka (Cate Blanchett, taking on a throaty Scottish brogue), and she captures Toothless after he submerges in an icy lake near her dragon reserve. Valka is like a Jane Goodall of Viking territory, rescuing dragons and taking care of them in a new oasis where they can fly and thrive. She is also Hiccup’s long-lost mother. Surrounded by a flurry of magnificently rendered new dragon characters, Valka and Hiccup share a bit of bonding to make up for lost time.
Inspired by Cressida Cowell’s 12-book series, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise has feats of fantasy that should mesmerize kids who are old enough to handle some of the frightening dragons. (There are two colossal tentacled Bewilderbeast, a good one that Valka owns and Drago’s sinister counterpart, which sent some of the younger kids at my screening into cries of terror.) Majestic music and top-notch animation make the battle sequences something to behold, while the swift movements and colorful visuals are so arresting that it is not surprising that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is a “visual consultant.”
Even though the exciting action sequences are more lavish than in the original film, there is a dearth of meaningful human drama. Valka’s introduction, as well as an argument between Hiccup and Stoick about the former’s future as the chief of Berk, should give the protagonist more of an arc, as he learns about his mother and questions his loyalty to his father. In the predecessor, Hiccup’s curiosity and decision to befriend a dragon provided an intriguing story. Here, his motives and desires are not as pronounced.
While Hiccup’s quest eventually turns into a journey to become his own man, the events that spur him into a more adult role are mostly external and rely on very little internal change. The big story event that changes the emotional stakes of the characters hits hard, but is still a predictable story beat that many viewers will see coming. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s bonding with Valka has moments of mother-son poignancy, but does not have the same emotional hook at the growing camaraderie between boy and beast that hit the screen four years ago.
Similarly, there is not much going on with the rest of the teenage misfits from Berk. Astrid, Hiccup’s autonomous pal from the first film, is an archetypal girlfriend here and spends much of the story on the sidelines. Her jokey pals, voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher-Mintz Plasse, Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller, get little to offer, except forced comic relief. One sub-subplot, where Wiig’s Ruffnut is dazzled by Eret’s bulging biceps, is the bane of her character’s storyline. To reduce a young female character to being controlled by the sway of muscular, masculine men is an uncomfortable characterization, especially for a film aimed at families. Kids under ten may be amused by these characters’ exploits, but just like in the predecessor, they are a replaceable bunch – especially next to some weighty, dramatic story turns.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is undeniably thrilling, but it is also too swift, with too few pivotal moments of character development. The action sequences are still dazzling, and should please kids and fans of the fantasy genre. However, after such a promising start in 2010, it is a shame that How to Train Your Dragon 2 does not plumb for as much depth, despite the additions of Hiccup’s growing pains and more parental conflict. DreamWorks’ next big series is already suffering from franchise fatigue.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an exciting adventure with rousing animated action, but it lacks the emotional hook of its predecessor.