I loved How to Train Your Dragon. It's a great story. It's got great characters. It's pretty as all get-out. And the score is absolutely amazing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
So I really wanted to like How to Train Your Dragon 2. And did like it… But I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.
Let's start with the high points. Firstly, if you thought that the first film was pretty, you'll find the sequel absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous. Seriously, it's worth seeing just for the scenery and character design. It's got great banter and top-notch voice acting. Individual scenes and subplots shine.
I can't speak highly enough for the screen time shared by Stoick the Vast (Hiccup's father) and Valka (Hiccup's long-lost mother, who's reasons for staying away never feel adequately explained). The scene where Stoick first sees Valka again, twenty years after he thought she was killed, brought tears to my eyes. And I just about lost it again not ten minutes later, when he woos her with a song after she becomes overwhelmed by the changes her world abruptly faces. I don't think I've ever seen two animated characters so believably in love before.
John Powell's soundtrack is pretty good too, though not nearly as good as his score for the original How to Train Your Dragon. He rehashes a lot of the first film's themes… Which sometimes works. And sometimes is just a mess. Ironically, it's when he gets away from his familiar themes that Powell starts to shine again. As many of his new movements are related to Valka and Drago, this means that How to Train Your Dragon 2‘s score noticeably improves after the first act.
I also really enjoyed how all of the characters had visibly aged since the first movie. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is set five years later; Hiccup, Astrid, and their friends are still young, but also noticeably grown up. Stoick's hair is shot through with gray… And when we meet Valka, streaks of white are visible in her hair too. It's not something you see very often in movies, especially in children's movies, and most especially with women (who never seem to be allowed to show signs of aging, unless they've already been assigned the role of the crone). It's a nice touch, and I think a pretty significant stylistic risk on the part of the filmmakers.
Unfortunately, it's also the only real risk How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes.
As much as I liked the scenes involving Stoick and Valka, the (re)introduction of Hiccup's mother sucks up an inordinate amount of plot. Astrid's character particularly suffers in this regard; her reduced roll in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is painful to watch compared to her much larger roll in How to Train Your Dragon.
Which brings me to my central problem with How to Train Your Dragon 2 — it's plot. Which is not to say its plot is bad. It's not. But the messaging is off in a way that's really hard to get past, especially compared to the first movie.
How to Train Your Dragon is basically the story of a young naturalist, whose affinity for the world around him leads him to see beyond the conflict between the dragons and his people and forge a way forward for both races. While the basic premise of “kids get things that their parents don't, and ultimately save the world from their folks’ short-sightedness” is not uncommon, How to Train Your Dragon‘s emphasis on respect and love of the natural world on its own terms strikes me as relatively unique. Dragons turn out to be both like us and unlike us, but there's no judgement to be made. By the film's end they may be companions, fellow travelers, and friends, but they remain fundamentally alien.
Moreover, How to Train Your Dragon eschews choosing between the simple all dragons are good/should be protected and all dragons are bad/should be kills dichotomy. The movie's third act sees Hiccup and Toothless battling a monstrous dragon called the Green Death that controls the dragons that have been raiding Berk. Some dragons turn out to be really dangerous, and sometimes you do need to fight. But sometimes you also need to listen.
That's a remarkably complex message for what's essentially a children's movie.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 initially seems like it's going to continue on in this vein. Drago is obviously not someone who can be reasoned with, and Hiccup's (really unreasonable) belief that he can ultimately leads to tragedy. Throughout the movie, people tell him again and again that a chief's responsibility if to protect his own. Valka must protect the dragons she's rescued. Stoick must protect the people of Berk. And so on.
Stoick has (predictably) selected Hiccup to succeed him as chief, but Hiccup doesn't really want the job. He's still a naturalist and an explorer at heart (which is a good thing, since it's his explorations that uncover Drago's threat), and he doesn't want the duties of a chief. Besides, as he observes early on, Astrid is “much better at those kinds of things” than he is.
There's an interesting, if predictable, plot being foreshadowed here. Hiccup needs to discover that some men cannot be reasoned with — to learn again that sometime you have to fight. But just as the first movie was about seeing shades of gray in the world, perhaps in this one will be about the shades of gray in leadership: A chief must always fight for his people, but you don't have to be chief to fight. You can be important, even pivotal, without being the leader of the tribe.
So, of course, Hiccup's going to win this fight. But he wants to be out there (the film's Jonsi single is even title “Where No One Goes”, in reference to Hiccup's adventuring streak). He's not going to be the chief. We've already foreshadowed that Astrid should be the one with that job. It's predictable but interesting. And more than a little brave for a summer movie aimed at the teenage demographic.
I should have realized that none of this was going to happen when it became apparent that Astrid's screen-time was dramatically reduced from that of the first film.
Then Stoick is killed during the first battle with Drago, a plot twist that is completely unnecessary except to clear the way for Hiccup to become the new chief — you know, the job he doesn't want and thought Astrid would be better at.
Finally, in the movie's penultimate scene Toothless attacks Drago's super-creepy dragon-mind-controlling “Alpha”, freeing the other dragons from its grip. Together the dragons beat back Drago and the Alpha… And then all of the dragons accept Toothless as the new “Alpha”, providing the necessary symbolic segue for Hiccup to become Berk's new chief. You know, the job he didn't want and thought Astrid would be better at.
(And what is it anyway with the convention that for male characters to come into their own, their fathers gotta be snuffed out? It's completely unnecessary in most cases, and verges on the Oedipal. Just stop. Please. Just. Stop.)
The message of How to Train Your Dragon 2 seems to be that sometimes you're just handed responsibilities you don't want, and you have no choice but to accept them. That sometimes you have to set aside what you love, what you are, for the greater good. And sure, that's true sometimes… But jeeze, don't hand the kid a shit sandwich and then make out like it's gonna be happily ever after.
What I find interesting, and more than a little distressing, is that all of these problems are really problems in the film's weirdly abbreviated third act. It feels as if Dean DeBlois wrote a great script that totally ran with the mildly subversive themes of the first movie, and then someone higher up the food chain read it and was like, “you know, we've already got a great thing going here… Why are you risking it by trying to be unconventional again?” And then they handed DeBlois a copy of Save the Cat! and commanded him to strip out enough of the movie to fit in a third act that “fixed” the “problem.”
I really hope that's not what happened. But How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like something really special that the suits got to. What's left may be a lot of fun… But it could have been so much more.