Sequels, by definition, are motivated by commercial gain. If the original film tanked at the box office, there would be no follow-up. When it performs better than expected, the powers-that-be want to know why, and then they want to repeat that successful formula another time or two. Give the public a variation on a familiar property and watch the dollars come rolling in. That may be a cynical way to begin this look at an animated film, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that How to Train Your Dragon 2 wasn’t conceived as a cash grab first and a satisfying children’s film second.
Novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in the late-1930s that you can’t go home again. That may be a bit extreme. But, you certainly can’t go somewhere (literally or intellectually) for the first time again. How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was a brilliant mix of humor, heart and action that captivated children and adults alike. We met Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the scrawny son of a stalwart Viking who didn’t have the heart to kill, and Toothless, the dragon who couldn’t fly until Hiccup mended his broken wing.
The “inferior” boy and his injured “pet” learned that together they were bigger than the sum of their parts. Along the way, we explored the difficulties of father-son relationships and what it’s like to be an outsider in your community. How to Train Your Dragon was richly layered with a clever sense of humor for adolescents and adults and vibrant colors and wondrous sights and sounds for smaller children. It was a fantastical, animated adventure that resonated with the kind of real life lessons found in films like My Dog Skip (2000) and Marley and Me (2008).
In this installment, Hiccup is being groomed to become the next chief of the Isle of Berk, inheriting the mantle from his proud papa, Stoick (Gerard Butler). When Hiccup and his dragon-riding pals come across a band of rogues who capture dragons and sell them into captivity, they learn that the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is forming his own army of dragonriders and will not be satisfied until he controls all of the dragons in the kingdom including our trusty friend, Toothless. Hiccup must convince his father that this threat is real, and they must defend their home from this new enemy.
Unfortunately, the creative team behind the camera has not been able to recreate the same cinematic blend that audiences found so satisfying in the first film. Thanks to famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Prisoners) who is on board as a consultant, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably more visually captivating than its predecessor. However, the sumptuous look of the film fails to disguise the hollowness of its narrative. Silly slapstick has been substituted where clever humor used to be found, and the shamefully manipulative death of a central character generates cheap tears that the first film earned with actual emotional depth.
The themes of alienation and “being different” that connected with so many young filmgoers in How to Train Your Dragon have been replaced with a simplistic environmental narrative this time around. Hiccup and his cohorts explore Eden-like dragon refuges and seek to protect them from the smoke-churning, industrialized ships of Drago. The film attempts to explore the ties that bind a family together, but the surprise appearance of a new character and the shocking change in an established character will likely produce more confusion and questions from young viewers than emotion.
Fans of the first film will undoubtedly enjoy being reunited with the familiar cast of characters. However, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a light snack when compared with the substance of its predecessor. It’ll hold you until you can find something more satisfying.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.