For a case study in what a good sequel ought to aspire to, look no further than DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2. As we’ve generally come to expect and take for granted, it’s certainly a bigger and grander movie than its predecessor, but it also shows that director and scriptwriter Dean DeBlois clearly understands the difference between recalling past themes and virtues to construct something new vs. casually settling for hitting the same notes to repeat yourself.
At heart, Dragon 2 is a coming-of-age story for our hero Hiccup. The film takes place five years after the original and reintroduces us to the remote viking village of Berk, now radically changed for the better thanks to Hiccup’s exploits. He’s a scrawny contrast to his father and village chief Stoick the Vast, but because of his ingenuity and an empathy that made him the fantasy equivalent to the lead of The Horse Whisperer, the Vikings now happily coexist alongside the dragons they once feared and hunted. In this time of peace and harmony Hiccup contents himself with soaring the skies and charting Berk’s surroundings with his Night Fury dragon Toothless, while his peers indulge in sportsmanship aboard their draconic steeds. Hiccup also enjoys an affectionate relationship with Astrid, who Stoick considers as good as his daughter-in-law already. Hiccup is now on the verge of adulthood and his achievements and qualities are not lost on Stoick, who believes the time has come for his son to take up the mantle of leadership. But Hiccup, who vividly perceives the ways he is unlike his powerful and resolute father, is not nearly so confident.
Matters soon escalate when Hiccup’s exploration leads him and Astrid to a discovery that things are far from calm outside of Berk’s domain. They find a demolished outpost and run afoul of the band of dragon trappers that it belonged to, who quickly assume that the riders of Berk used their dragons to wreck the place. The pair and their dragons are enough to take on the thugs but it’s revealed they’re just one pack of minions acting in the name of Drago Bludvist, a self-proclaimed “Dragon Master” and would-be conqueror amassing an army backed by a horde of dominated dragons. Though Hiccup believes he can and should confront Drago and change his mind about dragons just as he once did for his own people, Stoick knows of Drago’s ruthlessness and instead moves to quarantine Berk and prepare for war. Hiccup once again breaks rank and heads out with Toothless in a bid to give peace a chance, little knowing that what he will experience and discover as a result will be beyond anything he could have imagined.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is to be commended for evolving and changing the conflicts that Hiccup is involved in. The first movie told a straightforward story: boy meets dragon, boy bonds with dragon, boy risks everything to save his people from their ignorance and gains acceptance. As is so often the case, the role of the adult world is simply to learn something from the example of the youth. Things are not nearly so simple in this adventure, where Hiccup’s convictions and knowledge are constantly challenged. He is sidetracked in his quest to find Drago by a new character named Valka (whose full place in the film the trailers absurdly opted to spoil), a woman serving as caretaker for a vast and glorious sanctuary for dragons who demonstrates that Hiccup still has much to learn about the creatures he loves so much. Drago is a basic but imposing villain and thoroughly Hiccup’s opposite, large and powerful and capable of dominating man and dragon alike through sheer force of will. Whereas Valka and Hiccup see the dragons as noble creatures and companions, Drago’s harsh experiences have molded him into a man that perceives them only as savage beasts whose terror he is destined to liberate humans from.
Inevitably these two philosophies and the forces backing them clash, and when they do it feels very possible that Drago’s use of force and the exploitation of instinct can overpower any human’s genuine bond with a dragon, no matter how strong. Despite grievous defeat, Hiccup is resolute in not giving up on his beliefs or his bond with Toothless to see him through, though more than sentiment is needed for victory also. Hiccup’s idealism is generally admirable and backed up by the first film and certain events here in the second. It’s easy to conceive of a version of this storyline where Hiccup embraces Stoick’s admonition that “a chief protects his own” in his own way as a peacemaker. In lieu of that familiar road being taken, Hiccup instead learns the hard way that there was much wisdom in the instincts of Stoick, who takes on an active leading role in the film. Yes, people are capable of altering their preconceptions and changing for the better and we see an example of that again in this film. However, some will not and the time does come when the answer is to stand and fight. All this is a fine example of good conflict as once framed by J. Michael Stracyzinski, where understanding is a three-edged sword: one side, the other side and the truth somewhere in between.
If I had to single out one weakness to the film’s storytelling, it’s that it becomes substantially less interesting in those few times that there is something not related to Hiccup’s point of view or his family. Astrid gets one fabulously touching scene with Hiccup and is his stalwart companion in the first act, only to fall to the wayside and ultimately play a minor role in the battle against Drago. Astrid’s primary purpose here seems to be to encourage her man, which feels rather wasteful for a character who was established as a fierce warrior in the first movie and made such wonderful first impressions in this film. The good news is that Valka is a major character, and her bonding with Hiccup over what they have in common represents the soul of the movie in many ways. However, even with this compensation, Astrid could and should have had more to do. I dearly hope this can happen for the third adventure. As for Hiccup’s other pals, they barely register and contribute absolutely nothing to this film save comic relief that misfires badly. Snotlout and Fishlegs awkwardly and badly compete for the affections of the obnoxious Ruffnut for no discernible reason even after she starts lusting after someone else, while Ruffnut’s twin brother rolls his eyes and acts annoyed about it. That’s nearly everything they do in the mercifully few and fleeting moments that they appear onscreen. Based on this showing, these characters could be absent from the third film and not be missed at all.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the poster child for DreamWorks’ home-engineered animation program Apollo. The soaring technical demands for what’s considered cutting edge computer animation might seem extreme at a glance, but one can’t argue with success: How to Train Your Dragon 2 cost less to produce than the original film, and it simply looks spectacular. Its color palette is rich and attractive, character costumes and appearances are detailed, its vistas are magnificent, and the dragons themselves look more alive than ever. Whether fighting on land or in airborne draconic dogfights, its action is well-staged and dynamic, and the design work features some of the studio’s best effort to date. Dragons of all shapes and sizes are everywhere in numbers beyond counting, and there are even awe-inspiring creatures that make the massive predator of the first movie look average in comparison. Valka’s dragon sanctuary is a place of marvelous beauty that compares to Elsa’s ice palace in Frozen and the domains of the heroes of DreamWorks’ own Rise of the Guardians. As a rule I usually err on the side of viewing movies in familiar 2D, but the 3D presentation here so completely took me in that I was soon oblivious to the fact that I was watching it that way. The job done here with the 3D is as good as any I’ve ever seen, and the bigger the screen one can find the better. Not every movie really lives up to the IMAX format, but this is one of them.
DreamWorks has long conceived of its adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s children’s books as a grand trilogy, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 shows it here by admirably expanding on what drew so many to the original film. I love that it ends well but doesn’t settle for playing everything safe. Hiccup is most definitely in a very different place at the end of the adventure compared to where he is at the start, and the sequel largely respects the intelligence of its audience as it delivers a story where our hero is forced to engage a world that he finds to be both far harsher and more wondrous than what he once believed. I don’t know how they top this or where it all goes from here, but I have no doubts it will be worth finding out.