By Will Ashton
Truth time: while I certainly enjoyed the original 2010 How to Train Your Dragon for what it was, I was no where near as big of a fan of the film as many, many other people evidentially are.
Don’t get me wrong; I definitely think it is a good movie, with a lot of heart and some wonderful flying scenes. But people make it out to be upon the same level as Pixar, and considering that it came out the same year that Toy Story 3 did, I can’t quite get on their level.
To me, the overall story was one that I had seen before several times, and done just as good, if not better. Did those other movies involve dragons and great CGI? No and probably not, but the story, while certainly well crafted, just wasn’t something that took me off my feet the way it did for so many other people. That would happen when the aforementioned Toy Story 3 came out a couple months later.
With that in mind, I didn’t go into its sequel with the same level of expectations that many, many people seemingly will. But, keeping in mind that I did—indeed—enjoy the original film, I can certainly still say that I was looking forward too. At the very least, for the ride.
While there is a lot here to like, and enough to make fans go home excited—especially kids—I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the eventual result. If I was a little disappointed, I can’t imagine that fans are going to leave this film having it met their sky-high expectations.
And, yes, all these sky puns are intentional.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 returns to the adventures of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless, along with their fellow friends and dragons, five years after the events of the original film. By now, the town they live in has not only come to appreciate dragons, they have also adopted them into their lives. Now that a few years have passed, Hiccup is no longer just a boy, and, with that in mind, he is expected to take over town-running duties from his father.
But Hiccup, it seems, does not seek out that kind of life, and would much rather fly around in the sky with Toothless finding and searching new lands that are out of their horizons. But one newfound town finds Hiccup and his townspeople entering into some unforeseen troubles, along with a couple surprises along the way that impact more than a couple characters lives permanently.
Once again, the visuals are stunning here in this sequel as they were in the original—if not more so. The animation is decidedly layered and captivatingly detailed, and the backdrops that surround these characters are, again, very rich and beautifully designed. The storyboards alone that flicker across the screen during the end credits showcase all the hard work and time that was developed into making this world feel real and grounded (despite being about creatures that fly in the air). In that aspect, their work gathers some well-earned respect.
It’s just a shame that the story wasn’t as detailed and layered.
Dean DeBlois gains sole writing and directing duties here, not gaining the accompaniment of Chris Sanders in the writing and directing categories (he was busy making last year’s The Croods) or Will Davis with the pen either. As such, DeBlois working at his own devices serves at its own advantages and disadvantages.
He certainly understands a sense of scope, both in story and in terms of the characters and their world. With that, he appropriately expands upon what lies in their universe and their lives. He also understands the importance of making sure these characters age and gain hardships in their lives, making them not only realistic but also engaging and rich. But, when it comes to writing dialogue—and especially writing jokes—he doesn’t quite have what it takes.
That is probably the biggest trade-off that he gains from losing his partner-in-crime Sanders. Based on his work in The Croods, it would seem that Sanders is the one that has a stronger understanding of how to balance comedy and heart. To DeBlois’ credit, he does try to incorporate both into here, but every inclusion of straightforward comedy here is un-engaging at best and painful at worse. There are a couple background jokes here that make an impact (they all involve Toothless, as one would expect), but everything else, comedy-wise, is dead in the water.
One particularly bad case of this involves a running joke with Ruffnut’s character (voiced by Kristen Wiig) finding love. Then again, this is Wiig we are talking about here, so perhaps DeBlois is not completely to blame there.
As the movie progresses, it does, indeed, develop its heart, but it feels more manufactured here than it did in the first. There is definitely an appreciation here for these characters on DeBlois’ part, but he only truly finds it in certain moments. Now, those moments are pretty special, but they come a little too far and between for their own good, and ultimately cost the movie from earning the full pull that it probably deserves.
Then again, these moments—particularly those centered on Hiccup’s family—are ultimately what save this movie. The dynamic emotional pull feels mature in the type of movie that usually is not, and sincere to boot. Additionally, the best thing about this new series has been how they established a sense of consequence with their characters and their actions. Without giving anything away, the decision to continue that here makes for not only the most emotionally resistant moment in the film, but also the support needed to make this movie fit through the door.
To date, the original How to Train Your Dragon ranks up there with Avatar and Hugo as one of the best 3-D theaters experiences I have ever had. While the flying scenes are good here, as is the 3-D, the movie doesn’t quite earn the awe that the original had. The spectacle is there, but it is not as empowering as it was the first time. Perhaps this has to do with the lack of emotional pull, or the lack of surprise that the first one had in its power. But, ultimately, it makes for just enjoyable, but not quite as powerful, moments, and not much else.
Which, ultimately, sums up everything about this sequel. There is quite a bit to appreciate about this sequel. It, thankfully, is not just a repeat of the first movie, and it does establish some brief, strong emotional moments to match the stunning visuals. Just like the first one did, making it a household name. But it doesn’t quite have the heart, or brain, to make it the experience that the original was. If I am saying that as someone who liked—but didn’t love— the first, I have a hard time believing that fans are not going to be at least a little disappointed.