My son and I were part of the Dragon Training 101 graduating class that considers How to Train Your Dragon the Greatest DreamWorks Animated Film of All Time. In those basic studies we learned that dragons respond well to a combination of generosity and teamwork, that even the scrawniest Viking can surprise you, that Scottish Viking fathers are stubborn but negotiable, that Old World prosthetics were surprisingly advanced, and that cinematic dragons have come a long way since Dragonslayer, Dragonheart, Dungeons & Dragons, Eragon, Dragon Wars, and even Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where those mighty beasts received fifty-eighth billing, ranking well below CG mermen, nameless wizard henchmen, and a guy who turns into a rat. So How to Train Your Dragon was a tremendous PR boost to a once-honored race of monsters that deserve better than Hollywood usually gives them.
The How to Train Your Dragon 2 intermediate course had much to live up to in our minds, both as a sequel and as the next rung on the ladder of dragon-training success. We feared whether this would be a worthwhile study or one of those unaccredited, fly-by-night scams that hopes you won’t be able to tell their “dragons” are just really ugly dogs with paper wings taped to their fur.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Jay Baruchel returns as the voice of the shrimpy but super-inventive Hiccup, the Scottish Viking lad who negotiated peace between dragonkind and his now-calmer village of Berk. He’s now twenty, still best buds with the dragon Toothless (still the world’s only known survivor of the Night Fury species), dating his pal Astrid (Ugly Betty‘s America Ferrara), and once again at odds with his dad (The Gerard Butler), who wants to prep him for the job of successor chieftain. Their calm is damaged by a heinous, dreadlocked tyrant (Djimon Hounsou) planning to take over the world with his dragon army, and of course he’s named Drago. Also new to the scene is another, gentler tamer named Valka (Cate Blanchett, adding yet another creative accent to her collection) who presides over a sort of dragon sanctuary far from mankind’s belligerence…and who, as you’ll note was already revealed in the trailers, is Hiccup’s mother, presumed dead in the previous movie. Like most dead comic book characters, she’s not anymore.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Nearly all of Hiccup’s friends and peers return from last time — Late Night‘s Craig Ferguson, former SNLer Kristen Wiig, Two-Time Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill (even though he has maybe six lines), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from Superbad), and T.J. Miller (now costarring in HBO’s Silicon Valley). They’re barely necessary and afforded few individual moments, but it’s nice that they were invited back.
Along with Blanchett and Hounsou, there’s one other new name of note: Kit Harington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) as one of several dragon-poachers, a tattooed hunk named Eret, forced to meet quotas for Drago and his plans of amassing a grand dragon army Or Else. One of the other cast members thinks Eret is really dreamy and will probably dedicate a blog to him as soon as Hiccup invents the internet.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Last time around, Hiccup taught his dad Stoick a lesson and changed his stubborn mind for the better. This time the tables are turned. When an overconfident Hiccup believes his own press and thinks he can negotiate peace with a heartless rage-aholic like Drago, Stoick has to teach him the hard lesson (first through words, then through deeds) that not everyone is open to change, self-improvement, sympathy, compromise, or even the slightest dissent. Life isn’t a Saturday morning cartoon where all sides cease fire and rejoice together in the Moral of the Story at the end of every episode.
And yeah, war sucks, but from time to time there’ll be a single-minded aggressor who leaves you no other choice.
Nitpicking? This next section may count as spoiler-y for the movie’s second half-hour, but touches on none of its final half-hour. If that’s a concern, skip down to the next ellipses and you should be fine.
I had qualms about the family reunion at the core of the story. When Hiccup and Stoick each learn Valka is alive after nearly two decades of thinking they’d lost her, both are quick to welcome her with open arms. We learn she was abducted by a dragon when Hiccup was a baby and assumed to have been turned into dragon chow. Instead she was spirited away to live with the dragons like Tarzan lived with apes, learning to love life among them — away from what she viewed as a brutish, war-mongering All Mankind — and eventually becoming a virtual dragon whisperer. Ultimately, though, she wasn’t their prisoner. She could’ve coaxed a dragon fly her back home at any time. But no, she stuck by the dragons for years and left her baby son behind. (And, y’know, her husband too, but that’s more of a pop-culture norm, especially in cases where some of the dialogue hints that the happy couple had unresolved issues before their sudden, prolonged separation. Nitpicking that part will get me nowhere, I’d wager.)
When the men stumble across her, she tries to explain herself with a guilty hesitation that implies she’s expecting some combination of reluctance, anger, or persecution. None of that ever happens. Valka once was dead, but now she’s returned, the Prodigal Mom ready to come home again. Hugs are hugged out, tears are shed, and happy family is very happy, except for that impending dragon war.
No one confronts the part where the dead mom turns out to be a deadbeat mom.
This part’s personal to me because someone I’m very close to was in a long-term scenario in which the mother who raised them through the early stages turned deadbeat-mom and basically, voluntarily abandoned them for the next several years for the worst of selfish reasons. In my mind that’s not something to be swept quickly offstage. Perhaps it’s the filmmakers’ interpretation that Hiccup and Stoick are heroically noble for being able to forgive Valka unconditionally in the space of several seconds. I didn’t sense any narrative groundwork laid for that. I got the impression they thought this would’ve been far too heavy an issue to tackle in a ninety-minute animated summer blockbuster, and pedaled past it as hard as they could.
Happy family is instantly happy, and that’s what counts for the summertime cinema crowd. If only real life were like that year-round.
Unrelated thing: the flying sequences are grander and more daring than ever, but pieced together in short cuts limited at three to ten seconds apiece. They add up to airborne majesty and some nifty stunt-filled set pieces, but I feel like the studio could’ve challenged themselves more by pushing for longer, more continuous cuts. When How to Train Your Dragon 3 opens in 2016, I’d love to see them go for broke and go nuts with an uncut six-minute tracking shot of nonstop dragon barnstorming that leaves every viewer stunned in their seats.
So did I like it or not? When the tide turns in Act Three and evil threatens to overwhelm all, I made the conscious decision to table my Act Two issues for the time being as the dramatic elements kicked into highest gear. The situation is grim and the odds are against them, but Our Heroes, mostly older than they used to be, summon new reserves of bravery and fight the good fight in complicated sequences that rival the original, don’t remind me too much of Peter Jackson films, and even toss in a couple of giant-monster fights to compensate for the shortage created this summer by certain other, stingier blockbusters.
The most interesting part to me was watching Hiccup mature from an ignored, misunderstood teen to a steadfast young man who’s taken his share of damage and is slowly coming to terms with his current and future responsibilities. It’s rare to watch animated film stars grow up physically and emotionally, but Hiccup makes a winning transition.
As for his partner, the nonverbal Toothless likewise steps up his game, learns a couple of new tricks, and, in the film’s climax, throws off the last vestiges of safe, fluffy merchandising and truly puts the “fury” in “Night Fury”. I think Toothless is my new favorite movie dragon, so Smaug had better bring it on in that final Hobbit extension.
In my mind the original HTTYD remains the Greatest DreamWorks Animated Film of All Time, but HTTYD2 is a satisfying successor, albeit with the issue above noted for the record as a black mark. It’s still a better DreamWorks sequel than Kung Fu Panda 2 or Shrek 3 through Shrek Infinity Plus One. I’m guessing HTTYD3 will answer the still-burning question of where all the other Night Furies went. Regardless, I’m eager to see what Dragon Training graduate school looks like.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the How to Train Your Dragon 2 end credits, though I noticed the bagpipes on the soundtrack were the work of a troupe punnily named the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. They’re a real thing and they sound nothing like the amateurs or funeral performers I’m used to abiding politely. The sampler on their main page compiles snippets of several bagpipe covers, including a surprisingly accurate take on the opening riff from AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”. Worth a look.