Three or four story ideas collide like cars at a busy intersection, refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast.
Wow, playing in theatres right now is the best film ever from DreamWorks Animation! No, not HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. I mean the trailer for THE MADAGASCAR PENGUINS. That’s right: after years of playing second fiddle to goofy lions, zebras, and giraffes, the action-packed penguins Skipper, Rico, Kowalski, and Private finally step into the limelight of their own feature film, and the two minutes of footage you see is guaranteed to provide the most entertainment you will get after purchasing your ticket to the aforementioned dragon-training sequel.
Speaking of which: What is the one thing you will not see in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2? How to train your dragon – that’s what. The training was pretty much completed in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, so there’ s not much left to do this time except haul the familiar characters out of the mothballs and put them through their paces again, in search of a new plot to justify the sequel’s existence. Unable to settle on any one story idea in particular, writer-director Dean DeBlois throws in three or four, which intersect at odd moments, like cars colliding at a busy intersection, each refusing to give the right of way, so that no one ends up going anywhere fast. The result is beautiful but dull, coming to life only in isolated sequences that should have been saved for a better movie.
HOW TO TRAN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a reminder that, despite the billions of dollars DreamWorks Animation has made from SHREK sequels and other animated fare, the company’s batting average is inconsistent in any terms other than box office. Yes, DreamWorks knows how to formulate films for broad demographic appeal, but too often the result is an awkward and easily identifiable formula. Last summer, TURBO (2013) broke the mold, insofar as it felt more like a Pixar movie than a DreamWorks effort. Unfortunately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON sees DreamWorks Animation getting back into the business of churning out standardized DreamWorks animation. Too bad no one realized that DreamWorks was better off imitating Pixar’s formula than reverting to its own.
In the grand tradition of prevous DreamWorks computer-animated films, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON shoe-horns in a frenetic but gratuitous set-piece early in the first act. Refining their technique to the ultimate degree, DreamWorks actually starts the film with said set-piece, which essentially consists of the supporting cast playing quidditch on dragons. There is lots of activity – flapping wings, hair-pin turns, characters hurling bon mots in mid-flight – but none of it has anything to do with what follows. Which might be tolerable if the scene set the tone or at least reintroduced our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), but no, that is saved for the next scene – another set-piece, this time featuring Hiccup and his lovable Night Fury, Toothless, soaring above the ocean.
Why DeBlois though his film needed to back-to-back showstoppers before the show even got started, is anybody’s guess, but at least the ocean-going flight provides screen time with the characters we actually want to see. Moreover, the sequence stands out as a visual highlight. The nervous editing of the opener is discarded, in favor of allowing the audience to see and savor – in glorious 3D – the joy of flying a dragon among the clouds. The sense of weightlessness, when Toothless pokes his nose out of the screen at us and then descends into free-fall, is vertiginous, and Hiccup’s own efforts at flight (in a webbed get-up reminiscent of a flying squirrel) cement the feeling of two companions sharing a magical experience.
Unfortunately, you cannot sustain a whole movie on friendship and flying, no matter how glorious, so the plot(s) kick in. First, Hiccup is worried because his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) has decided his son is ready to take over leadership duties. Although Jay Baruchel does his best to convey Hiccup’s lack of self-confidence, anyone in the audience familiar with the events of the first film already knows that Hiccup has nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, the film feels need to provide Hiccup with some way to prove himself, so the second plot kicks in: some poachers are capturing dragons for the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is assembling a dragon army that could cause trouble for Hiccup’s village. Stoick wants to batten down the hatches and prepare for war, but Hiccup insists on flying to meet the threat, in the hope of negotiating peace. Stoick tries to stop Hiccup’s planned peace negotiation on two or three occasions, but Hiccup will not be dissuaded. Well, at least not until his noble effort is derailed when he stumbles upon Valka (Cate Blanchett), who turns out to be his missing mother, previously assumed dead. At that point, the film stalls into a fitful idle, as Hiccup more or less forgets his vital mission, choosing instead to hang out with Mom.
This provides opportunity for flashbacks and back-story to explain Valka’s long absence, the explanation of which strains credulity more than the thought of flying, friendly dragons. Leaving that aside, it turns out that, during the intervening years, Valka has become quite the dragon-wrangler, which makes it a little hard to swallow her apology for abandoning Hiccup all these years (think of the decades of enmity between vikings and dragons that she could have avoided if she had simply bothered to go home and teach them the lessons she had learned).
After a tearful reunion between Stoick and Valka, the film gets back on track with the whole Drago situation. As nice as it is to see the touchy-weepy story set aside in favor of something resembling a plot, what follows is not an improvement. Drago is less a memorable villain than a simple plot device. He hates dragons because one took his arm, but he doesn’t mind using dragons as an army to conquer other humans (though what he has against those humans is unclear – unless it’s simply the fact that Hiccup’s village now likes dragons?).
Drago’s plan consists of using an Alpha Dragon (you know how there was a giant evil dragon that was the real villain in the previous film – well, let’s do that again!) to control all the other dragons, including Toothless, who turns briefly evil, kind of like Superman in SUPERMAN III, except that was a lot more fun. What goes completely unexplained is how Drago controls the Alpha Dragon; apparently they came to some kind of an understanding years ago.
Can Hiccup overcome Drago and rescue Toothless from Alpha Dragon’s spell? That’s not really a question, is it? The real question is how will the events play out, and the answer is: not particularly well. Hiccups doesn’t do anything particularly clever to resolve the situation, and his ultimate solution is barely removed from something he tried unsuccessfully at an earlier stage, but this time it works, because, hey, this is a happy family film, and things always work out in the end, amiright?
In any case, all of this is supposed to prove that Hiccup is up to the task of taking over as leader – not that we ever doubted, so it’s not as if we feel any character arc has been completed. Along the way, the question of whether war or negotiation is the best approach is pretty much answered.: war! Though the film pretends to hem and haw on the issue, killing the bad guys seems to be pretty much the answer. Does this life lesson leave Hiccup a sadder, wiser man? Um, no.*
If nothing else, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 features all the production value one expects from DreamWorks. The backgrounds are beautiful; the animation is amazing; the 3D effects outshine anything you see in live-action these days. And Toothless remains a wonder to behold – the dragon equivalent of a supersonic jet fighter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem afraid of letting him steal the show from the human characters, so he tends to be sidelined too much (rather like Wolverine in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED).
Ultimately, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is such a convoluted mess of random story fragments and uninteresting supporting characters, that it fails to service the franchise’s main strength, which is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. When the inevitable HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 arrives, hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this mistake.
- And does he have trouble adjusting to the fact that his pet dragon toasted Stoick to death like a viking marshmallow? Also no. Interesting that dead fathers carry so little emotional weight this summer. Check out MALEFICIENT, in which Princess Aurora doesn’t even need to forgive the title character for killing Aurora’s father; it’s simply assumed to be fine and dandy.
Avoid it like an Alpha Dragon!
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014). DreamWorks Animation. 102 mins. PG. Written and directed by Dean DeBLois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. Voices: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou.