You know those films that all your friends love, so you feel a little emotional pressure to like them too? How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are those films for me.
It’s not that I don’t like them, because I do. I just don’t like them as well as anyone else I know. Dreamworks has impressed the masses with these dragon flicks all too easily, in my humble opinion. Critics gave the first film 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. The sequel has 92%. For comparison, Ratatouille has a 96% and Frozen has 89%. It seems to me that people just like dragons—not that Dreamwork’s film was actually as good if not better than the likes of these other animated movies.
Dreamworks Animation will always live in Disney’s and Pixar’s shadow. They could outdo these titans any day, but this time, with the dear characters of Hiccup, Stoick, and Toothless, I’m afraid I wasn’t that impressed. In fact, I’m already beginning to forget the film and it hasn’t been a week since I watched it.
Too much action and epic traits for very little underlying story is what I saw.
A Dragon and His Boy: The Continuing Saga
The beginning of this storyline is spoiler-free. I’ll tell you when that changes.
But Hiccup doesn’t feel called to watch over their village. Only a few short years ago, he revolutionized the Viking world when he first trained a dragon. It’s exploration of the unknown world around their village that matters to Hiccup. With Toothless, his beautiful dragon friend as his ridable travel companion, they have mapped out more territories than any other Viking generation that’s gone before them. This is work that Hiccup believes in.
And it’s their exploration that leads Hiccup and Toothless into trouble. They come upon dragon poachers. These strangers/losers are hired by a long-forgotten threat: the evil dragon master, Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Hiccup doesn’t know or care about these foreigners, but they won’t let him fly away with a dragon without a good fight. Drago wants all the dragons for himself.
While attempting to escape the clutches of Drago’s men, Hiccup comes across an earth-shattering discovery. There are countless dragons that have found sanctuary together in a massive iceberg-like icy cave. These dragons are wild, but not without help from the Dragon Rider, a mysterious/significant person that lives with the dragons and protects them.
Chief Stoick gets word that his son Hiccup has got himself into trouble with Drago. He imagines the worst is about to happen: plans for all-out war, and quickly forms a rescue party to find his son. Stoick can’t bear the thought of losing his only son at such a critical time.
Hiccup meets the Dragon Rider, who is stunned as well as Hiccup is to learn they are estranged but very much related. The Rider is Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s mother. As it turns out, she has lived with the dragons in secret for almost 20 years. She’s done her best to protect these innocent beasts in the icy hive—away from the reaches of Drago. Hiccup is stunned, as he didn’t know she was alive. In fact, no one knew she was alive.
Valka tells Hiccup a sad tale: how long ago their Viking village was attacked by Drago and his dragons; how it nearly cost all the people their lives. But in a peculiar turn of events, Valka had overpowering compassion for the dragons that were led to do evil for Drago. From that moment forth, she fled from man’s world. She sought to save as many dragons as she could find. It mattered more than anything to her, even more than her village, her baby (Hiccup), and her marriage to Stoick.
The chief’s Viking family is reunited and form a new appreciation for each other, but not long before Drago arrives with his huge army and large collection of dragons that are ready to pillage and take everything from Stoick’s people, and the dragon’s from Valka’s dragon flock.
I’ll end the synopsis there, which is about the half way point of the film. Telling anymore would give too much away.
This is what cool sequels are made of
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an exciting action/adventure with stunning cinematography (if animated film’s are allowed to say they have cinematography). It’s almost as good as the first film, and in some ways better.
The technical detailed artistry of Dragon 2 is off the charts. The new and creative landscapes are life-like. When Hiccup is soaring through the clouds with Toothless, the visuals are breathtaking. You truly feel the expanse of the sky, the sea below them, and the outrageous size of some of these dragons.
Hiccup has a logical character progression. He’s come out of his shell since the first film. He wants to do something honorable with his life, yet he doesn’t know what that is. In the course of Dragon 2, he sees his father’s great example of what honor looks like for Vikings.
It’s a significant event that happens on the battlefield that teaches Hiccup what it means to be a Viking leader: to protect the people and their dragons. Hiccup’s dedication to his village is rekindled, and soon he finds the only hope of saving their kind from the evil Drago.
Drago is an interesting, if not downright scary villain that just wants all power. He sees the dragons as his ticket to keep all all of it, so he wants all of the dragons to serve him. He makes his job look easy enough: treat the dragons like dirt and they will cower before him. With a special ability one breed of the dragons possesses, Drago mind-controls the rest of dragons. They will do anything he orders for fear of Drago’s punishment.
You really feel like Drago is an unstoppable force. All Hiccup has going for him is Toothless, and Hiccup even struggles to keep Toothless on his side. So virtually nothing is in Hiccup’s favor when the going gets tough.
And all that said, the finale is as epic as the rest of it. The film wraps everything together with more finesse than Vikings deserve. Hiccup grows leaps and bounds as a character. His village is stronger than ever. His bond with the Dragon Rider will give them lots more to explore for Dragon 3.
What’s unsatisfying about Dragon 2
I have problems with stories like Dragon 2 because its overreaching. Through it all, there are plot contrivances that are made to maintain the energy of epic action. Some of it is visually mesmerizing. Some of it is too shallow for my tastes.
Also, because this is a family film, some of the silly humor of Dreamworks’ films sporadically gets in the way of telling the this action/drama for all its worth. Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), a teenage girl Viking that has no filter, is lusting after a dragon poacher’s biceps. Anytime that she and he interact, or other such teenage characters are around for comic relief, they erode the high quality of the overall film. Nothing approached the spark of humor I like to find in a good family film.
On another note, Dragon 2 did some Pirates of the Caribbean like things to build up action to outrageous proportions. At the same time, because this is a family film, both arms are tied behind the back for the filmmakers. They can only hint at the violence of real warfare. Nothing was shown that is battle realistic (involving blood and guts).
And it’s because the storytellers want to make you understand there are real stakes, they chose to kill one of the more important characters.
Quickly moving on (away from spoilers)…
Dragons are supposed to be somewhat endangered species, but by the numbers we see in this film they are most certainly not near extinction. The good guys and the bad guys want to make claim on all dragons for their own benefit. The dragons demonstrate all sorts of special abilities, which man wants to possess.
On the one hand, dragons are intelligent animals with more wits about them than the smartest of poodles. On the other hand, they are basically wild lions that can make or break… anything and everything, because they’re so powerful.
It’s the countless number of dragons—all of them loose cannons—that create too much noise, chaos, and disturbances for my liking. Their powers go to extreme lengths in Dragon 2. Some of those powers are exciting, and some of them don’t make sense. These nonsensical powers hurt the heart of the story—to the point that anything can happen, so nothing is knowable or well-established. And if virtually anything can happen, then its hard to know what really matters.
How it should have ended
There be spoilers in this wrap-up, just so you know.
Stoick sacrifices himself to protect his son, Hiccup. His death is painful and is moving for most of the audience. What bothers me is that I’m unconvinced that it was necessary, or that it’s consistent with Stoick’s Viking warrior nature to forfeit his life.
Stoick puts himself in harms way. How it should have ended is Stoick should have lunged for the head of Drago with his battle axe and ended all of their conflict with one simple stroke. That would have been true to Stoick’s character, and justifiable given the dire situations the good guy’s were in.
But if Stoick had attacked Drago for hand-to-hand combat, he would have obviously won, and the film would have come to a happy ending about 40 minutes too soon. Stoick would have been the hero, not Hiccup. Obviously, the film couldn’t let that happen.
They treat Drago as this evil god-like force that can will anything to happen with his mind-control of the dragons. For the fact of the matter, he’s missing his left arm. He doesn’t usually carry weapons. He proves himself to be haggard, belligerent, and arrogant to absurdity—not especially skilled at leading his forces. He just seems to have an incredible amount of luck with his dragons, which are all so smart they can’t tell that he’s rather stupid. Huh?
Stoick, the antithesis of Drago, was healthy, strong, a great leader with warriors to back him up, a cunning fighter, and a man that always carried a battle axe. He had something worth dying for, which actually means he had something worth living for. That can’t be said of Drago.
So, to put it simply, Drago was just standing there waiting for Toothless to kill Hiccup. Stoick has all the opportunity in the world to defeat the enemy and save everyone from tragedy and defeat. So he should have attacked his enemy—not taken the heat for his son (pun not intended). Toothless wouldn’t have fired on Hiccup in the first place if Drago was injured or dead a moment before.
Because the story made this rather forced sacrifice, to kill Stoick for a fleeting moment of bravery, I found the backbone of the film to be lacking credibility. There were other similar plot and character weaknesses in the film, but I don’t feel they are really worth hashing out.
If you love Dragon 2, I’m happy for you. If you think it’s better than The Incredibles, like many others do, than I think you’re carried away with beguiling dragons and not good story.
Still, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is fun for family viewing, and offers more potential for the next installment.