Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

by Adam Riske
Is it possible to call a movie good even if you were a bit bored with it?

Theoretically, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a good movie, but with like the original I didn’t feel much involved in the story and had to fight from spacing out on a number of occasions. I would say that if you are a fan of the original, you will enjoy the sequel. There is much that the movie does right, namely the mesmerizing, almost photo-realistic detail of the computer animation.

The sequel is more action-oriented than the original, telling the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless, pitted against the evil Drago (voiced menacingly by Djimon Hounsou, who should do more voiceover work) in a battle to protect the peace between man and dragon, as well as the prosperity of Hiccup’s native island, Berk. I give credit to director Dean DeBlois (co-director of How to Train Your Dragon and the wonderful Lilo & Stitch) for staging the action and flying sequences as well as he does. It’s rare in a computer animated movie for me to find action sequences thrilling (they often resemble busy nonsense) and DeBlois is in total command of the pacing and choreography of these scenes. At times, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is quite thrilling. Its climax even resembles a vintage giant monster movie throwdown.
I appreciate a number of other things about the movie, including how sincere and almost square it is. It seems that being clever is top priority in animation these days, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 has no interest in appealing to hipsters. It’s not jokey, except for some truly flat comedic beats involving Hiccup’s friends (voiced by Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Kristen Wiig) but luckily those are worked in sparingly and come out of the characters as opposed to pop culture cheekiness. The score by John Powell (Rio, Shrek, Happy Feet) is wonderful, full of inspired and heroic anthems and the voice acting is strong as well, especially from Baruchel, America Ferrara (as Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid), Gerard Butler (as his father Stoick) and Cate Blanchett (as his long-lost mother, Valka). Valka and Stoick share a beautiful reunion scene midway through which serves as the movie’s highlight and reminds me the most of the strongest attributes of the original, which were its heart and love for its characters. The scene is great; you just have to turn your brain off to the fact that no one seems mad at Valka for splitting on her family for 20 years.

But as I said earlier, I would be lying if I didn’t say the movie bored me at times. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a cold opening that completely rips off the Quidditch sequences in the Harry Potter movies, except this time it involves riding dragons and dropping sheep into a net (also have you ever noticed how the exterior shots of Berk look identical to Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)? After that, the movie works in fits and starts. You could honestly zone out for five minutes at a time and miss nothing during the majority of the second and third acts. I just didn’t care all that much about the proceedings.
And now an odd complaint, mixed in with a compliment. I think the character arcs of Hiccup and Stoick across the first two How to Train Your Dragon movies have been especially well done. Stoick began as an intolerant warrior and has naturally progressed into a sympathetic leader, while Hiccup has matured (via his talent training dragons) into an invaluable and trusted member of his tribe, which is a big progression from the bumbling teenager he began as in the original movie. But what about Toothless? I know he’s a dragon, but what is he all about? I wish the characterization was stronger for Toothless because as one half of the series’ dynamic duo, he is a key element to the success of these movies. It wouldn’t be unfair to say the filmmakers make Toothless an accessory as much as a character this time around. The treatment to Toothless is indifferent.

Indifference is actually my major problem with How to Train Your Dragon 2. I’m not worked up about it one way or the other. It’s good but also a tad dull. I just don’t care all that much. It’s a professionally made movie by people who care, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why this story had to be told or what it is truly even about. Thematically, it is saying very little. What it is saying about family is confused and what it’s saying about responsibility is misguided because Hiccup accepts responsibility during the proceedings out of necessity and not out of individual choice or desire. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, he’s doing the right thing but I feel as if he’s going to hate it every step of the way. As a result, the epilogue of the movie, which is supposed to be rousing, seems almost to be a big lie.
All in all, I think I prefer the original How to Train Your Dragon to its sequel. If you're going to see it, the new one is worth seeing in a theater for its action sequences, which will benefit from being seen on the big screen. I know most people love these movies, but this is a case where I have to say that I’m happy for those people but I simply don’t share their enthusiasm.


  1. Great review Adam! I too was surprised by how a lot of character stuff happened during the movie but it didn't feel like it had much weight even though it kind of did. But I had to give the movie major props for having actual stakes and consequences. I bemoan the Despicable Me franchise so much because I feel it has potential to compete with Disney and Pixar, but is too afraid (or just satisfied by box office receipts) to go into that darker territory where things get a bit scary for a little while or threaten to change the course of the franchise. Say what we will about how it feels disjointed, but Dragon 2 definitely takes some chances and makes a couple of moves that I think they will have the good sense to build upon in the next movie. I liked the first one much better, but there was still some great aerial acrobatics and a genuine sense of wonder to keep me smiling through the whole thing.

    1. There's a lot to like in the movie, I just don't understand how it had so little impact on me when I watched it...twice. I agree with you on stakes and consequences. I think the first movie does that really well with Hiccup (spoilers) losing his leg in the final battle.