Of late, the second installment of franchise films all seem to have a common thread: go darker. Get sad. Get mean. Go deeper. And cut deeper, too. It’s kind of obvious that today’s filmmakers are no doubt inspired by what is heralded as one of the greatest sequels ever, The Empire Strikes Back, the game-changing second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. In a nutshell, here’s what Dante from Kevin Smith’s 1994 film Clerks. thinks is so great about The Empire Strikes Back, and I think we’re beyond spoilers here (Empire is 34 years old – get over it), so…
“Empire had the better ending! I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader’s his father; Han gets frozen, taken away by Boba Fett! It ends on such a down note. That’s what life is: a series of down endings. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”
Not that I’m against the make-it-sadder approach to sequels. Truthfully, I was going to give How to Train Your Dragon 2 five stars, but something’s been nagging at me since I watched it. The rest of the movie is fantastic – it’s everything you want in a sequel. Familiar characters come back to do the familiar things that endeared you to them in the first place, the story goes further, and it isn’t just a rehash of its predecessor. However, in a rush to be different and meaningful, a certain incident in the third act of the film seems to be glossed over and almost dismissed without giving it its proper due. More on that later.
For all of my complaining, though, the return of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), love interest Astrid (America Ferrera), his tribe leader father Stoick (Gerard Butler), second-in-command Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and his pals Fishlegs, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snoutlout (Jonah Hill), and twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) is a captivating ride. This second installment of the series finds our heroes older and wiser – well, somewhat wiser – and in a very different place from where we first saw them. Formerly battling dragons for their very lives, Stoick’s Viking clan has adopted – and adapted to – a new way of life in a peaceful, fun, vibrant co-existence with dragons.
It’s a peace that’s about to be rudely interrupted by Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a warmonger hellbent on creating a dragon army for one purpose: control. Control over every living thing, be it man or dragon. Stoick’s history with Drago instantly sets Stoick on the defensive, while Hiccup’s optimism takes him in a different direction: find Drago and try to reason with him. Along the way, Hiccup encounters more wild beasts and treacherous men than he can shake a stick at, always bringing with him that idealism that helped change his clan’s life for the better. He also meets Valka (Cate Blanchett), a figure from his past that shares a kindred interest in caring for dragons and learning everything about them.
Secondary characters take a backseat to Hiccup’s physical, mental, and spiritual growth. He’s caught in that world where he’s not exactly a boy, but he’s not yet a man; a late-game incident forces him to grow up quickly and take the reins immediately. This, to me, is where the film – which already has a lot going on – kicks into a gear that I don’t think it’s quite prepared to use. It’s somewhat telegraphed, as I turned to my daughter early in the second act and said, “This is one of those films that’s gonna make me cry by the end of it.”
Between the introduction of Valka, the threat of Drago, a new character who becomes the object of Ruffnut’s affections, the new kinds of dragons, and the various factions that go between all of this, it’s easy to get lost plot-wise. So when this big incident occurs, it’s done without much of an emotional payoff or catharsis; instead, we’re hurried along to the final showdown where we’re all supposed to just accept and deal. Such is life in Berk, I suppose – I guess the respite from the high mortality rate could only last so long.
Up to this point in the film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a strong film with a good soul, well-crafted and full of vibrancy. However, I can’t help but feel that this life-changing event was a bit underwritten, treated as a mere stepping stone to further Hiccup’s growth, instead of it being a pivotal event with shockwaves that would permeate the remainder of the proceedings. With this film being aimed toward children, I suspect that the filmmakers didn’t want to dwell on this, choosing to move onto more action and the resolution of the Hiccup/Drago conflict.
If not for this sequence of events and how the filmmakers handled it, this would be a perfect summer movie. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes its time once again to reacquaint you with and make you care about all the characters and their arcs, and that’s where it hits every note. The film is at its best with shared moments between characters that help you get past the animation and really believe in each person. And once you start believing, there’s nothing from stopping this movie from grabbing hold and taking you as it flies to great heights.
[Here’s a tip: avoid the 3D at all costs, as the inherent dimness of 3D movies only takes away from the colorful world that Hiccup inhabits. Also, it’s just not worth it, as the 3D doesn’t serve much of a purpose at all, not being immersive nor engaging enough to warrant the extra charge. The animation is wonderful, being almost as photorealistic as a live-action film (thanks to renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, credited here as a “Visual Consultant”); to be inhibited from appreciating what the filmmakers have obviously so painstakingly created is a cinematic crime.]