“How to Train Your Dragon 2” does something simple yet amazing: they allowed their characters to age. That is unheard of in animated films, but it’s a savvy move here, for two reasons: it gives the writers the opportunity to truly make a man out of Hiccup, and it also allows them to be more forthright about the romance between Hiccup and Astrid, because watching two 15-year-olds kiss on screen, real or CGI, is kinda icky. Twenty-year-olds, totally different story.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” seems to be the blueprint for the story (and that makes sense, since they’re both DreamWorks properties), in that it raises the stakes about the importance of what Hiccup has accomplished, and it develops Hiccup’s family. Sadly, it doesn’t work as well as it did for “Panda.” It’s entertaining and gorgeous, but disjointed, veering between wildly emotional scenes on both ends of the spectrum without much thought for how they should flow together.
Five years after the events of the first film, Berk is doing remarkably well now that the residents have embraced the dragons (and vice versa), and the tribe’s chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) plans to swear in his son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) as the new chief. Hiccup isn’t sure if he’s ready for that much responsibility, but he forgets about becoming chief after he runs across dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington), who works for a madman named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is building a dragon army. Stoick knows Drago and prepares for war. Hiccup, however, wants to try and reason with Drago, and receives some help in the form of someone who’s known him since the day he was born: his long-lost, presumed-dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).
It’s hard to dog a movie like this for its faults when it also comes with a baker’s dozen of important lessons for kids to learn. The movie encourages people to think for themselves rather than submitting to an alpha; it speaks of how a relationship based on love and mutual respect is much more powerful than one built on blind obedience; it speaks of how doing the right thing is more important than doing the popular thing; and it shows kids that parents will willingly put themselves in harm’s way in order to keep their children safe. There is much to like here – Hiccup is brave and strong in the best possible way – and yet, it’s easy to get disconnected from it all. It doesn’t make the mistake that many sequels make of biting off more than it can chew; there is a lot of new information here, yes, but the structure is the real problem – it doesn’t manage the mood properly. Making a darker “Dragon” movie isn’t a bad thing, not at all, but going dark and then not knowing how to balance the lighter aspects of the movie with the darker approach is a bad thing.
Think of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” as a one-row jigsaw puzzle, and the final cut has the pieces assembled out of order. There is a very good and possibly great movie in here somewhere, but this version, much like Hiccup himself in the beginning of the film, seems unsure of itself, desperate to please rather than trusting its ability to tell the story the right way, and as a result it forces jokes into places where they don’t belong. If the movie were human, we’d say that it had a confidence problem. That’s a hell of a thing to say about a movie starring Vikings and dragons.