Usually I have reservations when a sequel, spin-off, or basically any continuation of a movie I liked is announced; however, I could not have been more ready for more after I saw DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon. The first movie introduced a breathtaking world full of interesting characters, and there was still plenty more they could explore with the concept. That being said, it’s very difficult for a sequel to a movie that good to measure up to the original. Let’s take a look at How to Train Your Dragon 2.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 begins with a monologue from Hiccup that parallels his narration from the first film. This time around, he highlights how the Berkian lifestyle has changed over the five years since the events of the previous movie: dragons are no longer seen as pests but friends and family, and this has changed everything about the village, from architecture to the purpose of Gobber’s armory – now used to fashion saddles and repair dragon teeth. Hiccup is now not only his father’s pride and joy but that of the whole island. Stoick tells Hiccup he thinks it’s time for him to begin training to be Berk’s next chief, but Hiccup doesn’t see himself as a leader, nor does he feel ready for so much responsibility. He confides in Astrid about how he really feels, but their conversation is cut short when a group of dragon trappers arrives on Berk’s doorstep looking for dragons and the dragon rider who destroyed their ship. Hiccup discovers that they work for a man named Drago Bludvist, and when he tells Stoick as much, the latter is noticeably shaken and wants to try to hide and keep the villagers protected. Hiccup is convinced he can talk to Drago and persuade him that peace will be best for everyone, so he surrenders to Eret, the leader of Drago’s trappers. However, Stoick finds out what’s happened, prevents Hiccup and friends from doing so, and tells him a story about how years ago Drago offered protection only to those Viking villagers who would follow him. Unsurprisingly, they all refused, and all were killed, except for Stoick.
As soon as Hiccup and Toothless are back in the air, a group of dragons and a masked figure start trailing them. Hiccup is grabbed, plunging a helpless Toothless into the icy water below. However, the human turns out to be Hiccup’s mother Valka, and one of her dragons fetches Toothless unharmed. Long believed to be dead, Valka had actually been living amongst and protecting a huge colony of dragons headed by the Bewilderbeast, the alpha dragon. Valka is also responsible for destroying Eret’s ship. Believing that his son has again been captured, Stoick takes Gobber and tracks Hiccup’s trail, eventually ending up in the dragon’s nest and confronted with his long-lost wife. At first, Valka is trepidatious, but Stoick is thrilled to see her, and all is well. However, their happiness is all too short-lived, as Drago himself shows up with another Bewilderbeast, which he commands to challenge the alpha of Valka’s colony. Drago’s alpha defeats Valka’s, takes control of the other dragons – including Toothless – and uses him to attack Hiccup. Stoick blocks the attack and is killed himself, for which Hiccup blames Toothless. The dragon, confused and afraid, stumbles back into the alpha’s line of sight and is taken by Drago. After giving Stoick a proper Viking funeral, Hiccup decides to lead his friends in an attack against Drago. All the dragons they have left are babies, which works to their advantage, as baby dragons listen to no one, not even the alpha’s call. Hiccup frees Toothless from the alpha’s control and Toothless challenges the Bewilderbeast, becoming the new alpha of the dragons. Hiccup takes his place as chief with Astrid, Toothless and Valka at his side.
Prior to re-watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 for the purpose of reviewing it, I had only seen the film once in the theater and once on Blu-Ray. This is in sharp contrast to the original, which I’ve seen many times and love showing to people. I didn’t quite understand why I didn’t like this movie like I did the first, just that it left me feeling unsatisfied, like something was missing. However, now that some time has passed and I’ve watched it with fresh eyes, I do have some ideas. And none of this is to say that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a terrible movie or a bad sequel, just that it’s not a great one, or on the same level as its predecessor. First, let’s take a look at the good things this movie has going for it.
The existing voice actors in How to Train Your Dragon 2 are just as funny, charming and lovable in their roles as they were last time. Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame is funny enough as Eret, but the real star among the new characters is Cate Blanchett as Valka. This character has a cool design, and I love her mask and armor, and Blanchett is every bit as tough, vulnerable, loving, and odd as the character calls her to be. It’s not touched on a whole lot, but Valka feels like a strange person who doesn’t belong with other people. I’m all for subtlety and wish more creators could master it, but here I feel like they’re almost too subtle. Valka connects with the dragons and even moves like one, and aside from her romance with Stoick, she doesn’t seem to share much with the other humans of Berk at all. I realize How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t just about her, but I would have loved more insight into this character, and especially her choice never to return to Berk and her family. The explanation they give is that she was afraid her affinity for the dragons would put her family in danger, and I guess that’s an acceptable explanation, if not a very satisfying one. I do love her scenes with Stoick, brief as they are. Throughout the two films, this is the most vulnerability he shows, and I love the way he quietly, calmly approaches her. She expects her husband and son to be furious with her, but the former is just overjoyed and the latter shocked. I love their re-introduction, and the scene where he sings to her and they dance. This isn’t a big musical number, but rather a small, intimate moment that feels authentic. Gerard Butler isn’t a very good singer, but he gives a very vulnerable, sincere performance here, and it seems like something you could imagine a man singing to his wife.
As much as I love these scenes, this leads to another problem I have with How to Train Your Dragon 2: the family isn’t together long enough. In the very next scene, Drago arrives and, shortly thereafter, Stoick meets his demise. He gets an honorable death, saving his wife and son from a huge dragon, but it’s a punch to the gut nonetheless. I don’t even think it was a bad move to kill Stoick off; good/lovable characters should die in fiction occasionally to keep the stakes high and make their actions that much more meaningful. But honestly, I think this movie should have been all about Hiccup finding Valka and the family being reunited. I would have saved Stoick’s untimely departure and Hiccup taking his place for the third movie. As it is, the film feels extremely rushed. So much happens in this film, and it’s only 102 minutes long! This mad dash to the finish line doesn’t just hurt the heroes, either.
Drago is an incredibly generic, weak villain. I guess he has a cool design, but it’s a little xenophobic to make the only ethnically/physically different character evil. This would get some leeway from me if he were an interesting character, or if he was even particularly enjoyable to watch, but he is neither. Djimon Hounsou does a fine job voicing the character, but the writers don’t give him that much to work with. Drago’s goal is to amass an army of dragons and to rule the world. He wants this because he used to be afraid because a dragon tore his arm off. Drago’s goals and backstory feel a little forced, even more so than Valka’s. It also seems a little silly that he controls the dragons by screaming at them. The way he uses his staff and physically dominates them by stepping on their snouts makes a little more sense and contrasts well with the gentle approach Valka and Hiccup take. I also have to say that I appreciate the fact that Drago is just a really bad guy; at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragon 2, it’s not apparent if Hiccup is right and anyone can be won over, of it Stoick is right that Drago is a heartless brute. Not every villain needs to be redeemed, and I appreciate that the film doesn’t beat around the bush regarding what a monster Drago is; it’s just a shame we don’t get to know more about him. The flashback of Drago from Stoick’s point-of-view also feels a little shoehorned in, and misplaced as well; seriously dude, you’re going to stop and talk about this while you’re all still on the enemy’s ship? I haven’t seen the third movie yet, so obviously I don’t know exactly how that story will proceed, but as is, it feels to me like the story of How to Train Your Dragon 2 could very well have been the plot to both sequels; Hiccup and Toothless even arguably discover a “hidden world” in Valka’s nest and hideout with the dragons. Regardless of how the third movie plays out or how good it is, this would have fixed all of the problems with the second, because they are all related to pacing or things not being very well fleshed-out and explained.
The dragon’s nest is gorgeous, too, by the way. Absolutely stunning. The first How to Train Your Dragon was one of DreamWorks’ best-looking movies up to that point, but they genuinely succeeded in topping it in this aspect with the sequel. Seriously, even the way they show the ice that the Bewilderbeast shoots out is beautiful and colorful. If there’s one area where How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an improvement, it’s undoubtedly the visuals. One holdover from the first film I forgot to mention is the way they animate Toothless. Depending on what’s happening in a given scene or who he’s interacting with, Toothless alternates between appearing cute and cuddly and absolutely terrifying. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always wondered if he’s based on a cat; his movements both when he’s being playful and when he feels threatened remind me of one. This is absolutely brilliant and very similar to many real-world animals and helps partially explain the misunderstandings humans have about the dragons. The music by John Powell isn’t quite as good as his work for the first one, but that’s not saying much because the first movie’s score is phenomenal. The original tracks in the sequel are very good and sound distinct from the first while still maintaining the main themes at key points. Hiccup’s friends are less annoying this go around, including Astrid. I still don’t really like her, but she doesn’t actively annoy me here.
With a little bit of hindsight, I feel very much the same way about How to Train Your Dragon 2 as I did back in 2014. However, it’s a little easier to see why: there is way too much going on in this movie that doesn’t even break the two-hour mark. I know mainstream studios tend to (mostly) be wary of making lengthy animated films, and I’m not even saying they should have. How to Train Your Dragon 2 almost seems like two movies, and I can’t help wondering if Drago was originally meant to be the series’ main antagonist and to come back for The Hidden World. Personally, based on the ads I’ve seen, Grimmel seems pretty similar to Drago in terms of motivation and goals anyway. But we’ll see about that. Regardless, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a good movie, just not a great one. It doesn’t always reach the soaring heights of the amazing first movie, but how many movies do, really? When How to Train Your Dragon 2 does something well, it does it very well. The little moments between Stoick and Valka, Stoick’s funeral, and Hiccup’s initial rage towards Toothless when Stoick dies are all fantastic scenes that will likely require some Kleenex. The action is mostly good, although, again, not as exhilarating as the first one. I still don’t care much for Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid, and their whole relationship seems like unnecessary fluff to me; I can’t speak for you, but I’m in it for his kinship with Toothless. It’s frustrating to feel unsatisfied by a sequel to a movie you loved so much, and things like the main villain and the motivation for Hiccup’s mother are pretty important to the overall story. At the end of the day, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is what I’d consider pretty good, but not great. I look forward to The Hidden World, and I’m really hoping Grimmel isn’t a redo of Drago.