Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Before I get into my thoughts on the latest 2014 film I’ve seen, I thought I’d just take a moment to announce some changes to the way that I do things around here.

I love film reviewing, and I like going into detail, as many of you will have realised. But recently I’ve gotten into a bit of a funk over my reviews, feeling that too often I am repeating myself and not getting as much enjoyment out of the process.

In particular, having found an outlet for writing shorter, non-spoiler filled, reviews over on The Write Club, I feel that spending time writing about acting, visuals, script and music in my more in-depth pieces – where I prefer to spend the majority of my time discussing story and themes rather than simple opinion stuff – is becoming increasingly pointless. The line between pure “Review” and “Analysis” is pretty obvious in my larger pieces, or so it seems to me after going back over a good few of them.

So, while I might still occasionally go all out on some films – The Hobbit’s third outing comes to mind as a likely contender – I’m going to eliminate the sections of acting, visuals, script and music from the pieces on this site, leaving them for The Write Club. Hopefully that makes for a more streamlined offering of thoughts on both sites.

How To Train Your Dragon 2


Will it be a case of sequelitis or something better?

Will it be a case of sequelitis or something better?

I happened to have seen the first How To Train Your Dragon only a few days ago, my interest being piqued by the trailer for the second one that has been crammed down my throat on several trips to the cinema in the past while. I found it a surprisingly pedestrian affair, predictable to a fault and really needing something along the lines of a central antagonist to improve the experience. Certainly I felt like I must have been missing something. But its popularity can’t be denied and the sequel has been making some serious waves in critical circles. But is it all justified?

A few years after bringing peace between dragons and the Vikings of Berk, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) spends his time mapping the world with his companion Toothless and avoiding the spectre of chieftainship pressed on him by his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). But when faced with a dragon army commanded by the sinister Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) and an unexpected meeting with the mysterious dragon protector Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup finds himself torn between responsibility to his home and a desire to forge his own destiny.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 was a very unique film for my perspective, in two ways. First, it was a sequel that improved on its predecessor. And second, it was a film that I actually came to appreciate more the greater amount of time I spent thinking about it, the opposite usually being the case (and how). How did this happen?

One of the things I’ve come to realise is really admirable about this film is the evolution of character, in Hiccup anyway, and in the general universe that has taken place since How To Train Your Dragon wrapped up a few years ago. Five or so years have passed, and Hiccup is a grown man, stubble and all. And while he has changed in appearance (if not his voice: Jay Baruchel’s nasally and somewhat annoying tone remains the same) he’s also changed who he is, to an extent. The Hiccup of the first film was trying desperately to just be noticed by his community, to find some kind of role within the society of Berk that was a bit more fulfilling than that of a smith’s apprentice. He found that and seemed happy (despite the all so casual reaction to losing a leg, another problem I had with the original).

But now time has passed, and Hiccup has all the restlessness of a man who has left his teens and faces the kind of choices that will come to define his life. His actions have altered the universe he lives in to a degree comparable to the discovery of electricity or the New World. His father wants him to take the traditional next step and move into a leadership role, following his example, something I would have expected after seeing the predictable course of the first film.

But Hiccup wants something else, something undefined. Exploration and things yet unseen call to him, whatever is just beyond the horizon. Responsibility at home, the work of a chieftain who must “defend his own” is not part of that. If there was one thing I truly enjoyed about the story of How To Train Your Dragon 2 it was this, the simple portrayal of a realistic human being facing realistic human choices in what is otherwise a very fantastical world.

The choice is illustrated to Hiccup starkly in the roles of his parents. He’s been raised by a frequently absent and simple-minded father, and following that path leads to leadership, responsibility and limited horizons. Then he is reintroduced to an absent mother, and see’s the world spreading about before him, a life of dragons, adventure and following his heart. There’s a deeper level than that to it as well, a conflict of military and pacifism, with Hiccup caught in the middle.

That journey is great, and while How To Train Your Dragon 2 does go too much into the allegorical realm of things at times, (more on that later) it’s an enjoyable journey to go along with, as Hiccup faces into the serious aspects of growing up and taking charge of one’s life. He eventually seems to try and tread a middle path between following the example of his deceased father and mixing it with the dragon riding and pacifism of his mother, something that is not untypical of real life circumstance. No one wants to be their parents exactly, but we often turn out closer to them then we would like to admit. Director Dean DeBlois presents that kind of tale very well, and Hiccup’s presence and evolution as a character is what keeps How To Train Your Dragon 2 from being the kind of humdrum tale that How To Train Your Dragon was.

Provoking that journey is essentially the point of the Valka character, whose identity as Hiccup’s mother is almost secondary really. That revelation is not spun out, and both Hiccup and his father get over what it means very, very fast – too fast really. Valka is just sort of there, prodding Hiccup in her direction on occasion, only really getting to shine as her own character in scenes with Stoick later on. That’s certainly a bit of a weakness, the lack of direct conflict as a result of this sudden reintroduction, but I guess that the production team just wanted to focus more primarily on Hiccup and Hiccup alone, with the meeting with his mother being more of a catalyst than a vital moment for relationship growth.

Cate Blanchett adds considerable gravitas as Valka.

Cate Blanchett adds considerable gravitas as Valka.

One of my main complaints with How To Train Your Dragon was the lack of a clear antagonist, DeBlois plumping for a tale where societal barriers were the main “bad guy”, along with a characterless monster that was introduced way too late to be effective. Thankfully, this is a problem that has been rectified in the sequel, albeit with some continuing issues. Drago Bludvist (quite the lazy name if I’m being honest) might not be anything too spectacular when it comes to the annals of even this genre’s villainy, but at least he is a villain: clear, defined and somebody to wrap a fantasy plot around. How To Train Your Dragon 2 takes its time with introductions, doing their utmost to big Bludvist up long before he makes an appearance proper on our screens. He looks and sound distinctive, and his introductory scene proper leaves us with no doubts as to his evil nature (even if he is rather basically written).

I suppose the problems come in after that. Bludvist seems to be designed less as a clear and present danger to Hiccup and his community – his is, but not in any really memorable way) but more as an allegorical contrast with Hiccup and his view towards Dragons. Both of them have been left maimed in encounters with dragons and they reacted in different ways, Hiccup erring towards peace and cooperation, Drago with war and a quest for control. They never even really fight, not hand to hand: that’s left to Stoick. There’s is a war of ideas, and that alone does not a great villain make. Their relationship is all about Hiccup, with Drago just a mirror. That could have been different. There’s hinting that Drago has a pathological hatred of the dragons, and this is what is driving him on, but that’s all too easily revealed to just be an excuse for some pedestrian world conquering. In the end, he has no larger aim than just taking over the world as it is, and burning anything in his path. There’s even some allusion to Christopher Nolan’s Joker in there, replete with a monologue not too dissimilar to Michael Caine’s famous “Some men just want to watch the world burn” speech. That can make for a good villain, with the right dialogue and interactions, everyone likes a sense of mystery and anarchy to their bad guys. That isn’t the case here, even of How To Train Your Dragon 2’s experience is improved measurably by the existence of an actual antagonist.

Because the existence of such a consciously calculating menace vastly improves the general sense of plot peril that these characters go under. That’s such an easy thing to get wrong really. Films of this genre routinely play things so safe that it’s impossible to imagine anyone dying, while other media (cough, Game of Thrones, cough) go so far into the other direction that death becomes this useless plot device, meant to shock rather than move. How To Train Your Dragon 2 has the balls to take things in a new direction with its more serious tone, and so, Stoick has to die. It’s not the bravest choice of course  – that probably would have been Toothless I guess, realistically speaking, no younger characters were going to die – but it still means something, that adds a significant amount of weight to the emotional resonance of the film.

Stoick’s death is well handled and adds a lot to the last act of the film: Hiccup’s grief, his decision to follow the wishes of his father, his estrangement with Toothless due to the manner of Stoick’s death and the final reckoning between his pacifistic world view and Bludvist’s militarism. And, simply put, it makes the finale have that bit more of an edge, to be the tail end of a story where actions have serious consequences. While I never thought they’d kill of Hiccup or anyone in his age group, there was still his mother, his dragon, his community and Bludvist himself. None of them did buy it in the end, but the threat was there, and that made the finale more enthralling. I like that the production team made the choice to introduce this higher element of peril into such a nominally kid-friendly film, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 gets a lot of kudos from me for that.

How about the general structure of the film? Well, it packs a lot into its first and second acts, leaving the third to be just about all set-piece explosion filled finale, and that’s a structure that I am fine with in films like this. In fact, it’s just about the best way to do it. The first is spent re-establishing the characters and their changed circumstances in as interesting ways as possible – “dragon racing” and Hiccup’s skydiving spring to mind – before we start getting into the more serious stuff, culminating with the reintroduction to Valka.

That done, and the main themes and struggles of the film established, we’re into the meat and bones of the adventure as Drago is introduced, Stoick and Valka get reacquainted in some of the film’s best scenes and the main crux of the issue is forced with the battle at the dragon preserve. The main plot point of the “Alpha’s” is a good enough one that it can plausibly allow for Pacific Rim-ish fight scenes to take place between two massive dragons while the more important, plot-wise anyway, small scale fighting can take place down below them. How To Train Your Dragon 2 does stay in this act a bit too long, or maybe just with that main plot thread, with all other characters really starting to suffer at this point in the film.

Still, it ends on the right note. Stoic’s death is handled pretty beautifully and an appropriate amount of time is spent on the aftermath, as Hiccup burns his father and gets a chance to grieve. It reminded me very much of Frigga’s death in Thor: The Dark World, and not just because of the boat burning: both funeral scenes are examples of the right amount of time being taken between the end of the second act and the start of the third for the characters to reflect on what they have gone through, the loss they have suffered and the subsequent peril they are going to have to face.

And so to the finale, which is more blockbuster than anything that has come before it. The Hiccup/Toothless estrangement is sorted out relatively fast, a plot element that was introduced and discarded with quickly, more out of plot convenience than anything, but still adds another layer of emotional turmoil in the final showdown with Bludvist. That showdown is still all about the power of teamwork and pacifistic resistance over the violent conquest angle of Bludvist, and in the end it is Hiccup who prevails. He’s found the middle ground, and takes his father’s place, though he ends the film on a slightly militaristic tone, a sort of “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” sentiment evident in his final monologue.

Overall I felt that How To Train Your Dragon 2 had a great plot structure, a great pace and spent the appropriate amount of time on the major plot-focused and action-focused set-pieces. That’s almost rare to find in this genre nowadays, many  of the rest tending to have a very bloated second act and a rushed first and third – something that the first How To Train Your Dragon was guilty of.

Unfortunately, not everything is so rosy with How To Train Your Dragon 2’s plot. One of the bigger problems is with its female characters. Valka is fine and serves an important enough plot purpose, for both Hiccup and Stoick. There are some inconsistencies within her character, but ultimately I can’t find too much fault with her. She has a major role in the story, even if she suffers a little for agency.

Unfortunately, Astrid could have a bit more to do.

Unfortunately, Astrid could have a bit more to do.

The problem is Astrid. She had a far bigger role in the first, both as a competent dragon hunter/rider and as a potential love interest for Hiccup. It was predictable stuff, but it served its purpose. Unfortunately there is no evolution for her in How To Train Your Dragon 2. She’s still the love interest, and she can ride dragons very well, but she has next to nothing to add to the plot beyond that. Her romance with Hiccup is largely relegated to two scenes at the beginning and the end, and while she takes the lead in some of the supporting casts contributions, there’s nothing there that some other of the minor characters could not have done. Her role as a female influence in Hiccup’s life is hinted towards at the start, but is then ceded to Valka wholesale.

After that point, Astrid barely has anything really relevant to aid to the story, being little more than a prize that Hiccup gets to claim at the conclusion. That bothers me a bit, because there’s potential there. Astrid is set up as equal to or superior than Hiccup in many ways, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 never gives her the chances to really demonstrate that properly and be her own independent part of the universe. There’s no agency in other words, she’s just following Hiccup’s coattails having been far ahead of him in parts of the first film. She’s far from just being mere decoration of course, but still, it rankles.

Of course, she’s not the only one of the supporting cast to suffer. Hiccup’s hangers on exist in the film only to engage in a very dumb teenage love plot that drags in the Eret character, and nobody comes out of it covered in glory. It’s just something for them to do so they have a bit of dialogue, an excuse for some low brow humour, and it doesn’t even get a proper resolution. Eret, in particular, undergoes a dragon-inspired change of heart in his profession in the middle of the film, and barely gets  any dialogue afterward, the transformation done as fast as possible. He has the Han Solo vibe to just about everything he does, but I’ve watched Han Solo, I grow up with Han Solo, and you sir, are no Han Solo.

It’s strange because these guys (not Eret, I mean, the others) had more screen time and character building in the first one, but that’s all been sacrificed so Hiccup and his family can take the lions share for the sequel. I suppose, given the running time, there was no real way around it, but it is still to be regretted: there are some good characters, voiced by Oscar nominated actors, to play around with here. That opportunity was not taken.

There’s also two big plot holes that have risen above the height of minor annoyances to bother me. The first is in regards Hiccup and Stoic’s reaction when they meet Valka again. Neither of them ever portray even the slightest hint of annoyance at her casual disappearance, or why she has remained absent from their lives for over 20 years. She couldn’t even send a letter? Her disappearance is described as consensual, and her absence has been a major part of Hiccup’s upbringing, but nobody at any point upbraids her for that absence. You’d think Hiccup and Stoick would be at least a little bit miffed when they discover the full truth, but no. That bothers me, because its s chance for constructive character conflict gone a begging.

The second is a bit more nit-picky, but still bothered me. Bludvist’s powers over dragons go mostly unexplained – merely the triumph of his “will” over them or something – and it is never elaborated upon why the giant “Alpha” is following him around and obeying his orders. This is a pretty big animal that he has in chains after all: it might have been constructive for his character if we went into greater detail as to how he was able to find and subdue such a beast to his will, seeing it is a basis for the entire wealth of power he is able to wield.

In the end, these complaints prove to be a detriment to the film, but not to my overall enjoyment of it. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still a delightfully serious film that presents a more realistic interpretation of what growing up means to a person, even if they live in a fantasy universe. It’s an emotionally painful process, one that invariably becomes mixed with grief when the death of a parent is involved. How To Train Your Dragon 2 gives a good portrayal to that in its central plot thread, creating an film which is willing to grow up with its initial audience and present a world that is no longer as simple as that which its characters inhabited in How To Train Your Dragon. That’s admirable, and while the story has those elements that drag it down to an unnecessary extent, I still feel that the overall package is very appealing.

Theme wise there are a few obvious ones. Growing up is such a theme, as the story tracks Hiccups’ entrance into adulthood, with everything that such a momentous thing entails for a young man. Growing up requires change and introspection: as the film begins Hiccup is unsure of what to do with his life, and which path to follow: that of a father or that of the mother he will soon meet. There are tribulations at every turn. Becoming a chief seems natural, the best use of what he has, but will chain him to a singular place he will be called upon to defend. Being free and turning to exploration and a life among the dragons seems more in line with who Hiccup is, but is still a dramatic leap into the unknown, that many in Hiccup’s life will be unable to follow him on.

Such choices are magnified in this fantasy setting, but are not really that different from the same choices many of us face in our own young lives. Hiccup eventually finds some measure of neutrality in his course, expanding his already vast horizons when it comes to the care, treatment and knowledge of dragons while remaining as the chief of a surviving Berk. His father must be honoured, but Hiccup can still follow his own destiny a bit. His encounters with Bludvist are crucial ones in this regard, reminding him that his responsibilities at home already exist, and that without him Berk could face dangers that will prove insurmountable. Bludvist’s path is a path that Hiccup has already rejected in the first film, that of selfish power grabbing and exploitation, but just because Hiccup has rejected such a path does not mean that others will.

Growing up is painful. It brings work, more complex relationships, the perils of romance and the grief of losing those who raised you. Hiccup faces into that journey, as we all must, and lets the treading of it shape him and the man that he is to become.

HTTYD2 improves upon its predecessor by actually having a villain, even a bit of a humdrum one.

HTTYD2 improves upon its predecessor by actually having a villain, even a bit of a humdrum one.

Connected to all of that is the theme of parenthood, or at least the influence of parents, either through their presence or their absence. How To Train Your Dragon had a major point to make about parental expectation and the limits of understanding that parents (and more specially fathers) have with their children. Stoick gets over some of his preconceptions about Hiccup and by How To Train Your Dragon 2 has accepted him for the man he has become, expecting him to become the man he is destined to become soon: essentially, another Stoick, the path that he has raised Hiccup, belatedly, to follow.

But Hiccup’s worldview is strangely influenced by his mother, despite the fact that he never knew her at all. They are more alike in so many ways than Hiccup and his father, for reasons that are not very clear. It doesn’t take Valka long to begin exerting a bigger influence on Hiccup after they get reacquainted, and the whole film is actually set up so that she becomes the only parental figure in his life, replacing Stoick wholesale. You always need those guiding hands in your life, and Hiccup has to settle for one at a time.

Conservation springs to mind as well, with one of the main cruxes of the whole film being the correct use of dragons as a resource. Hiccup and, to a more extreme extent, his mother are all about a symbiotic relationship with dragons, similar to the standard way that humans generally interact with pets and beasts of burden. There’s an exchange of services really, at least for Hiccup: all the advantages of dragon riding, in exchange for peace and a duty of care towards the dragons. His mother goes further, wanting to establish some kind of safe haven for dragons to live naturally. The parallels with the real world should not be too hard to see really, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 at times seems almost to call back to a Roman ideal of the noble savage, a barbarian world when the inhabitants re perfectly attuned with nature.

This is contrasted directly with the lines of Bludvist, who see dragons purely as a resource to be used exclusively for his own aggrandisement, only as useful as far as their talents will push him. He cares little for their welfare, and even less for their emotional wellbeing. Brutality and sheer force of will are the keys to control for him, and far more effective than anything the riders of Berk practice.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 then presents this clash of ideologies when it comes to conservation and the treatment of animals. The end result is the defeat of the violent and the militaristic by the forces of compassion, even if they employ a little bit of violence of their own. I suppose the final message in regards that pacifistic stance is that it can’t go the whole hog if it wants to survive: there will always be people who need to be faced down with force. Hiccup and his mother retain their pure vision of conservation and cooperation with dragons, but with an added hint of menace for anybody who wants to try and challenge their position, the film ending with a bold declaration from Hiccup that he and his people will defend themselves if they have to.

Lastly, there is some commentary on the issue of power and its correct application, which ties into some of the thoughts I have formulated already. I was struck by Bludvist’s repeated references to the power of “will”: he seems to dominate the dragons he controls by the sheer force of his, easily controlling his own “Alpha”, and it wasn’t hard to see a few creeping allusions to Nazism in the “triumph” of such things. For Bludvist power is something to be grabbed, as much as possible, with whatever methods are available – even if in the using of them they become expended and useless.

The proper application of power is seen in the protagonists of course, especially Stoick. He’s been a ruler for a long time, but has always based his position around what he can do for his country and not the other way round. He defines chieftainship as defending his own, not gathering that which belongs to others. Dragons can be a part of that process, but they are a resource that should be cared for, honoured and respected as much as possible. Stoick dies defending that philosophy, literally as a result of somebody forcing a dragon to his will, making a slave of them. Stoick dies, but his lessons do not, and inspire Hiccup on to defeat Bludvist in his own way, with the power of his friendship with Toothless the key to defeating the second “Alpha”.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 then is the second film of a series that explores how humanity is trying to harness vast, untapped source of natural power, and how they use it for their own ends, how they approach it and how they care for it. Humanity will always be split between people like Stoick and people like Bludvist, but the message o this film is abundantly clear: not only is the righteous path morally correct, it is the better one for the world that humans and dragons co-inhabit.

In conclusion, I found myself pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2. It’s a sequel with depth, evolution of character and circumstance, great visuals, excellent score and competent voice acting. There are elements where it falls down – the Astrid character, much of the writing – but overall I found it a very worthwhile experience. Fun and engaging, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the kind of sequel making that everybody should get behind.

Much better than anticipated and well worth a watch.

Much better than anticipated and well worth a watch.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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