There will, as always, be spoilers.
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, based on the children’s book series by Cressida Cowell, was almost a surprise hit. At the time, Dreamworks was known for a few popular animated feature film series, Shrek most notably, but considering it was up against Toy Story 3 from the famously good Pixar studios, I never gave it much of a thought.
Oh, how wrong I was.
How to Train Your Dragon was one of the most well-assembled, nuanced, and deep animated films I’ve ever seen, if not the most. The music was incredible, the use of color was amazing, the characters were real. The flying scenes took my breath away.
So when I heard that they were making a sequel, I waited for years. I watched the trailer for HTTYD2 with my jaw around hip level. I was all set for them to pull a Pixar and top themselves after four long years.
Sadly, it was not to be.
This is the story of how a surprise hit became surprise…well. It rhymes.
Okay, so that’s not really fair. It still had the cool flying scenes, but there were so many, and handled so casually, that it lost a little of its lustre. Friendship between man and dragon? You bet, though the conflict that drove the first film—the obstinate versus the enlightened—was shoehorned into a new villain character that was poorly built and even more poorly handled. Even the music wasn’t as sweeping and evocative as it once was.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the usual plot summary: Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, now twenty after a five-year time skip, avoids the island of Berk and his father (who wants him to become the new chief, which couldn’t possibly be a bad sign at all) by flying around mapping local islands. This is something of an expected habit from the show, which I’ve seen a little over half of, but that show rears its ugly head mostly in the writing style and not so much the plot, so I’ll refrain from mentioning it too much. A film like this should stand on its own anyhow—not everyone gets cable anymore.
Hiccup is engaged to Astrid now, though this isn’t really built upon much in the film beyond a few affectionate moments and casual intimacy. In the course of cartographication they stumble across a plot by the evil Drago Bludvist, who is enslaving dragons in order to force the world into…not being attacked by dragons…or something. Anyway, he has control over a megadragon called a Bewilderbeest (also known as the Alpha, the king of dragons). Any dragon who meets its eyes can be controlled by it.
Hiccup also meets his long-thought-dead mother, Valka, who enters the film in an awfully dramatic (and, frankly, cool as hell) dragon shaman getup. She has spent the last twenty years as a dragon researcher and protector, after having been abducted by a dragon just after Hiccup was born. Stoick the Vast, Hiccup’s father, and Gobber the Belch, Stoick’s right-hand man, come to rescue him, only for Stoick to be reunited with his long lost love. The island where she lives with the dragons (and her own friendly Bewilderbeest, but that’s really not important…at all) is attacked by Drago and his massive navy. He uses his Alpha dragon to control Toothless, who is forced to kill Stoick in a rather awkwardly foreshadowed move I didn’t expect from a series that is usually not so directly dark.
Eventually, after not a lot of buildup or catharsis or much of anything, Toothless is returned to the side of good (through the Magic of Friendship and in spite of the overarching message of the “good dragon” being essentially a biological fiat), Berk is saved, and Drago is…driven into the ocean?
Okay, wait. Astrid and the others being sidelined was bad enough (notice how I didn’t mention them much; that’s because they didn’t do much), Stoick being killed in a tonally dissonant manner was bad enough, the sudden introduction of an evil villain from out of fucking nowhere is bad enough, but he doesn’t even die?
So here’s the big problem with this movie: it’s just there, right? It’s a sequel. In the first film, the progression of Hiccup’s character from social outcast to hero is supported and, in a way, foreshadowed by his development of a friendship with Toothless the dragon. He uses his talent (intelligence, not brawn) to discover secrets about the dragons that he then teaches (a role reversal) to his friends in order to get their help (another role reversal) to defeat the bad dragon at the end (more of a metaphor for overcoming prejudice than an actual player). Everything he does is meaningful and fits a very solid story structure, including the sacrifice of his leg (a nice balance to show how humans and dragons aren’t so different, since Toothless was also similarly crippled, as well as something of a metaphor for innocence and suchlike).
But in HTTYD2, none of what he does supports much of anything. Sure, his idealism ultimately gets his father killed, which sorta leads to his “I don’t have to be him, I can just try to be as good a chief as him” moment, but he never actually learns to be a good chief or understand anything that his father was trying to tell him. Namely: a chief looks out for his people, and no job is too small for that. What “defeating Drago using a tiny fraction of his usual cleverness” does for that I can’t fathom. If Hiccup has an arc in this movie, it has a lot of jagged lines in it.
Astrid, who spent most of the previous movie being strong and intelligent without a dragon, is rendered mostly useless when she is forced to do without hers. Ruffnut and Tuffnut are their usual comedic selves, but it feels less an emergent part of their deep character roots and more…just there. Snotlout does about two things in the film, neither of them worth remembering. Fishlegs has a moment of fact-spouting that turns out to be mostly wrong anyway. Stoick didn’t learn anything from the first movie—he still marches forward stubbornly without letting his son get a word in edgewise. Gobber is Gobber, but somehow less than he was before. Even Toothless doesn’t have the same sense of presence as he once did. Valka, a really fascinating character in her own right and full of all sorts of possibilities both plot- and character-wise, contributes nearly nothing to the film other than making it sadder and more stupidly emotionally manipulative when Stoick dies.
They tried to do a clever thing or two by pitting Hiccup and Drago as character foils, which worked to a degree: both lost a limb to dragons, both want to use dragons to bring world peace, but they are fundamentally opposed. In fact, one of the repeated messages (which you expect them to invert but never do) of the film is that some people can’t change their minds, and while that’s an important lesson to learn it’s also not balanced well against the moral darkness of Stoick’s death. Imagine this: Stoick is killed as a direct result of Drago’s actions. Hiccup confronts Drago at the end of the film—ideally fighting the human-on-human side of the final battle while cutting now and again to interspersed shots of Astrid, Valka, and the others using their dragon-handling skills to take care of the brainwashed dragons—and tries to change his mind while they throw all their dragon-riding skills at each other. Eventually Hiccup wins through the power of trust and friendship (better reflexes? Dragon and rider as one?) and is forced into a moral dilemma: convince Drago to change, genuinely, or eliminate him. He has proven himself a genuine threat to fellow humans and, if he cannot be reasoned with, Hiccup must make the “tough chief decision” (a better message than “help out your people” for a future chief to learn, by the way) and be forced to kill him.
It would be, frankly, brilliant. The darkness added into the film by Stoick’s death would be validated by Hiccup’s ascent into the complicated world of adulthood, which doesn’t have much room for righteous idealism in the face of gray morality. Hiccup would prove himself chief-worthy by sacrificing, not his flesh, but his innocence, in a nice parallel with the original film. Astrid, his mother, and the other Vikings would have a role to play in the film that actually meant something, and it would even put a certain pressure on Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship—how will they react to knowing Hiccup has that capability inside him?
Dark? Yes. Darker than its PG rating? Yes. An impactful and important film? Yes. A worthy successor to the first movie, fit for an audience that has hopefully grown up with the franchise?
Oh, hell yes.
It’s good fun. I was never bored, and there are still all the familiar elements from the first film. It just didn’t arrange them in the right way. According to Wikipedia, Dean DeBlois appears to have taken this one on his own, instead of having Will Davies and Chris Sanders alongside him doing the screenplay. I don’t know enough about these writers to comment authoritatively on how this impacted the end result, but the fact remains that, even though I would always be less impressed with this film because of my starting expectations, I never really expected to go down at all. I was hoping for a similarly heart-fluttering take on friendship and bravery and duty, and instead I got…a sequel.
Here’s to number three. I’m going to go listen to the soundtrack from the first one and sigh.