Monday, June 23, 2014

A Study In Average Sequels, How To Train Your Dragon 2 Predictably Underwhelms.

The Good: Moments of character, General plot construction
The Bad: Predictable, Moments of forced humor, Erratic animation quality
The Basics: How To Train Your Dragon 2 continues the story of Hiccup and the dragons near Berk by introducing an unexpected ally and a ruthless new villain.

It is a pretty impressive thing when a single film’s release can change the direction of a production company. In the case of Dreamworks Animation, the somewhat ridiculous (but entirely impressive) winning streak the company had ended rather abruptly with the cinematic release of How To Train Your Dragon 2. Personally, I am surprised Dreamworks did not get their comeuppance a few years back when Prometheus (reviewed here!) was released in the U.S. opposite one of the Madagascar sequels, but regardless of my opinions, it took years later and the ridiculous 22 Jump Street to end the box office dominance of Dreamworks Animation.

Now comes the time for the Monday Morning Quarterbacking; was it the film or the statistical inevitability that led How To Train Your Dragon 2 to fail to take the top spot (or get there in its second week of release). Given that I was not the world’s hugest fan of How To Train Your Dragon (reviewed here!), I tend to fall on the side of statistical inevitability and weather for why How To Train Your Dragon 2 is being perceived as a box office failure (and causing a stock dip in Dreamworks!). Summer has not been intensely hot yet, so families aren’t feeling the push to go out to the air conditioned movie theaters with their children, whereas young adults and nostalgic adults with money in the mood for ridiculous comedies will drop dollars regardless of the weather. Another factor in play is audience age; How To Train Your Dragon was produced at the peak of the children’s book series popularity and the kids who grew up on that series are a few (significant) years older, which makes them less eager to go see the sequel. Regardless, even without having seen the first film in years, How To Train Your Dragon 2 holds up surprisingly well on its own. How To Train Your Dragon 2 might not be a stellar movie or an incredible sequel, but it is a not-disappointing work that is entertaining enough to be diverting, if nothing else.

Opening with a spectacular sports sequence, the Vikings of Berk are at peace with the dragons they have trained. Young dragon riders like Astrid and Hiccup ride their familiar dragons in Quiddich-like sports much to the delight of the Vikings of Berk. Stoick The Vast, Hiccup’s father, is enamored with the idea that Astrid might someday be his daughter-in-law and he wants the young Hiccup to take his place as Berk’s protector. After the entertainment, Astrid and her dragon find Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, at the edge of the realm. There, seeing a fire, they investigate and Astrid’s dragon is knocked out of the sky. Astrid and Hiccup meet Eret, a dragon trapper who is working for Drago Bludvist. The youths leave with their dragons and report back to Stoick that Bludvist is amassing a dragon army.

When Stoick is upset by the news that Bludvist is raising an army, Hiccup and Astrid head back to Eret’s ship to try to negotiate with him for a meeting with Drago Bludvist. The negotiations quickly fall apart when Hiccup’s friends arrive (and are almost captured) and Stoick himself tries to mount a rescue attempt for the not-captured Hiccup. After learning of the dark relationship Stoick and Bludvist once had, Hiccup is headed home when he and Toothless are attacked by a mysterious, masked dragon rider who leaves Toothless to die in the icy water. Hiccup finds himself in the custody of a woman who claims to be his mother and her horde of dragons. Valka tells Hiccup of how she came to be with the Alpha Dragon twenty years before while Hiccup’s friends worry about his whereabouts and prepare for a war with Bludvist. With a conflict eminent, Hiccup and his friends work to enlist the aid of Valka’s dragons to stop Bludvist from conquering Berk with his army of enslaved dragons.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is not bad as much as it is predictable and formulaic. With the first film virtually ending the conflict between the dragons and Berk, the sequel has a predictably external conflict. The introduction of Drago is an interesting adversary, though the fact that he comes into the narrative a decent amount of time after the much lighter antagonist, Eret, causes the film to have a few pacing issues. Because the film is very much a family-friendly film, Drago Bludvist is characterized as a psychopath without being shown to be much of one for most of the movie. Instead, he is a generic, short-tempered Viking lord who employs mercenaries and is told to viewers to be a crazed villain. He is rough on his subordinates and his goals are sinister, but he mostly fills the generic villain role without being shown on-screen as being truly monstrous.

At the other end of the spectrum is Valka. Hiccup’s mother is a protector of dragons and might well be best embodiment of Stockholm Syndrome seen in recent years in film, but she is presented with a similarly simple nature. Valka is a pretty universal good character, despite her twenty year absence from Hiccup and Stoick’s lives. A realistic amount of time is spent re-assimilating Valka to Viking culture (getting her away from considering herself a dragon), but that leaves shockingly little time for the actual conflict between Drago and the heroes of Berk (while keeping the film at a family friendly 90 minutes). The result is that the characters in How To Train Your Dragon 2 are almost universally simplistically rendered.

Hiccup seems much younger than the twenty years old he is supposed to be, until he has the threat of invasion to respond to. Predictably, Hiccup rises to the occasion of saving the dragons that Valka has been living with. That predictability makes How To Train Your Dragon 2 seem unremarkable and some of the lines – most notably the romantic obsession Ruffnut has for Eret – seem like throwaway bits of filler. As one might figure for a family film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is largely lacking in complexities. Hiccup is interesting in that he is a pacifist among Vikings, but even having not seen the first film in years, that seems more a function of his initial characterization than actual character growth.

On the acting front, the talents employed by Dreamworks Animation are predictably impressive. Djimon Hounsou’s deep voice is perfect for connoting menace in every line Drago speaks. Cate Blanchett is good at delivering exposition as Valka, but director Dean DeBlois fails to capitalize on her ability to deliver lines with real emotion by not giving her character the chance to make some of the moments sufficiently deep. Returning actors like Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, and Gerard Butler are pros who return to their roles easily, even when they are forced to deliver simplistic or unchallenging lines.

It seems like much of the purpose (within the universe of How To Train Your Dragon) of How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to raise the visual stakes of the world of Berk. The Alphas certainly do that, though their visual majesty is trumped by their use as background props for some of their most significant battle moments. Unlike something like, for example, Star Wars where the director might let the special effects department play long enough to create a lavish sequence involving the mammoth visual elements of the Alphas, DeBlois establishes the scale of the Alpha then uses the two massive dragons as background elements (deferring to their control over the rest of the dragons to express their influence in the film more than their physical presence).

Ultimately, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is incredibly average and the result is a movie that suffers as one might expect a sequel to: it is a return to a familiar place where one is left feeling like they did not need more of an expanded story than they already had.

For other Dreamworks Animation films, please check out my reviews of:
Rise Of The Guardians
Shrek Forever After
Shark Tale


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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