Director: Dean DeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler
The original How To Train Your Dragon was a pleasant surprise and is my favourite animated film to be produced by Dreamworks. Based on the book series by Cressida Crowell, it followed the journey of Hiccup, an anxiety riddled son of a Viking chief, whose bundle of nerves and passive nature has him struggling to meet his fathers approval. The Viking village of Berk remains constantly vigilant for dragon attacks but when Hiccup comes face to face with a dragon that he injured, he finds that they are friendly and non-threatening. He forms a bond with his new dragon friend Toothless and together they help prevent future conflicts between the people of Berk and the dragons.
The original How To Train Your Dragon film was a success on many fronts – from its spectacular visual effects to its wry sense of comic timing to the emotional highs it managed to achieve in the final act. I certainly felt that the story left itself wide open to sequels (there are several books in the series) and I welcomed a second instalment that kept the same writers and director from the original. I’ve since learnt that Dean DeBlois has plans on turning How To Train Your Dragon into a trilogy of films.
In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup and his friend Astrid discover a new group of vikings that are capturing dragons and amassing an army to invade the rest of the Viking realm. They are lead by the warrior Eret who is doing the grunt work for an insane conqueror by the name of Drago. When Hiccup warns his father of Drago, it is only then that we learn the depths of Drago’s depravity. He once murdered a whole meeting of Viking chieftains for disrespecting him, with Hiccup’s father Stoic the only survivor.
To complicate matters futher, a mysterious cloaked rider appears to watching events unfold from the sidelines, her intentions unclear to Hiccup. She is revealed to be his estranged mother, a revelation that I thought would be a big deal in the film but Dreamworks felt was unimportant enough to casually reveal in all the trailers.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a film that greatly expands the scope of the original film with larger battles, higher stakes and surprisingly dark story developments. DeBlois has cited My Neighbour Totoro and The Empire Strikes Back as his inspirations for this film and it certainly shows. Having said that, despite his best intentions and despite the polished final product, I found that I didn’t take to How To Train Your Dragon 2 nearly as much as I did with the original. I found that the broader scope of the film detracted from screen time showcasing the friendship between Hiccup, Astrid and Toothless, the emotional anchor for the original film. This time, a lot more emotional energy is invested in Stoic and his estranged wife Valka. Their marital problems, their emotional reunion and the tragic final chapter to their story.
I’m not sure I totally knew what I wanted from this sequel but a sad and brooding tale about Hiccup’s family wasn’t it. I found it difficult to fully invest in Stoic’s character development because mostly he’s been played as an over the top character archetype with voice actor Gerard Butler doing his best THIS IS SPARTA routine. The film wears its fantasy and sci-fi influences on its sleeve and it clearly wants to tell a story with spectacle and grandeur. And yet I felt it came at the expense of all the little things the original film did well – playful interactions between Toothless and Hiccup, the simpler and more resonant story of a son winning his father’s approval.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is far from a bad film. There’s still not really anything out there like it and I’ll be along for the ride to watch the final instalment. If DeBlois can stick the landing with the closing chapter, maybe some of my reservations about the direction this film took will wash away. For now though, I feel this is a slight misstep from what the original did so well.