In early 2010, Dreamworks Animation, the studio who had always been regarded as a hack who constantly tried and failed to imitate Pixar, and whose only previous movie that could be called unabashedly good was Kung Fu Panda, released How to Train Your Dragon, which against all odds, was filled with so much wonder and excitement that it ended up being one of the best movies released in perhaps the best year for Hollywood movies in recent memory. It was also a surprisingly huge financial success, which meant that Dreamworks quickly green-lit a sequel in hopes of turning the story of young viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet dragon Toothless into a long-lasting franchise. The idea of every successful movie having a sequel is a troublesome one, but the premise of How to Train Your Dragon seemed to lend itself to all kinds of future adventures, and I remained optimistic that the filmmakers behind it would come up with a story worth telling. And so it is that I stand here, four years later, with incredible sadness, as I declare that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a massive disappointment.
The failings of How to Train Your Dragon 2 remind me of another sequel to a surprisingly great movie. In 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, came out of nowhere (not in small part to a genius Johnny Depp performance) to become one of the most fun and exciting movies of the year. Three years later, its sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest forgot about all the small charms from the first movie and focused on taking the story in an epic, but soulless, direction. I wouldn’t go as far as to call How to Train Your Dragon 2 soulless, but it is definitely a movie that, despite featuring many masterfully animated sequences of flying dragons, seems to lack the life and energy of the first movie.
The original Dragon was co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, while the sequel ha DeBlois flying solo as the only credited writer and director. Now, I’m not saying that the movie is unsuccessful because Sanders wasn’t involved, but he had always been regarded as the main voice in both of his previous collaborations with DeBlois, and judging from this movie, it would seem like it was his sensibility that gave that special touch to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. You see, the first Dragon was so successful and surprising not only because it was a good movie, but because it felt so different. It was praised for the technical achievement of its exhilarating flying sequences, but the main attraction was the interaction between a young outcast boy and a dragon that looked and acted more like a cat than a reptile. It was also incredibly refreshing to see a movie that was so good at advocating for peaceful understanding and being exciting at the same time.
Hiccup was a true pacifist hero. He wasn’t a warrior, or particularly good at any physical activities. He was also not “the chosen one”. He was just a guy who was willing to hear the other side of the story. His biggest strength was the ability to listen. It was so refreshing to have a true pacifist, and a smart guy be the lead of a story when our movie culture is so obsessed with action heroes. That is why, in my mind, the biggest sin of How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that it turns Hiccup and Toothless and turns them into “the chosen ones”. The movie basically ends with Hiccup and Toothless asserting themselves as the alpha males of their community, demonstrating that they are stronger and more powerful than their enemy. It’s still a story about David triumphing against Goliath, but it turns into a violent one. One where strength is more valuable than intelligence, and one that goes against all the beautiful things the first movie accomplished.
However, now that I’ve explained why How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a big disappointment, let me say that it isn’t a disaster. For all its thematic failings, it does work as a movie. In the sense that it has a storyline that makes sense (it’s just one that betrays the spirit of the original). What is undeniably great about the movie, though, is the excellent quality of the animation. It is weird that Dreamworks, the studio that always seemed to be a step behind Pixar in terms of technical proficiency, has made what is probably the best looking computer animated movie ever made. The flying sequences, like I said, are exhilarating, and the lighting is superb (the movie, like its predecessor, has master cinematographer Roger Deakins as its visual consultant). The character animation, especially that of the dragons, is also a matter of technical brilliance. We have arrived at a point were the technique in our animated movies is perfected every single day, we just need the right stories to tell.
Grade: 5 out of 10