I haven’t seen How to Train Your Dragon since I reviewed it four years ago, but I remember being impressed by the visuals and underwhelmed by the story. Those impressions were reinforced mightily by How to Train Your Dragon 2, a sequel that might well have been the year’s best animated movie if the filmmakers had just paid a little more attention to the writing.
Picking up some years after the events of the first movie, the Vikings who live on the island of Berk have now made peace with the dragons, thanks in no small part to Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). The chief’s son now rides his trusty mount Toothless through the skies, mapping out the islands and waters around his home. That brings him into contact with some poachers and tips him off to a warlord named Drago Bloodfist (voiced by Djimon Hounsou), who seeks to conquer Berk with the army of obedient dragons under his command.
Dean DeBlois co-directed the first movie, but the sequel is his alone. From a visual standpoint, it’s even more spectacular than the original, with the dragons’ flights rendered in glorious 3D. When Hiccup discovers an island populated by dragons, the animators at DreamWorks let their imaginations run riot, giving us reptiles of every conceivable shape, size, color, and number of wings and heads. The movie’s most awe-inspiring moment is when Hiccup comes face to face with the colony’s “alpha” dragon, an aircraft-carrier sized white creature with walrus-like tusks that breathes ice instead of fire.
The trouble is, the colony is being cared for by none other than Hiccup’s long-lost mother, Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett). Believed dead by everyone in Berk, she chose exile because her community was killing the dragons. Once she sees the new state of affairs, she comes back, and neither her son nor her husband (voiced by Gerard Butler) have the slightest problem accepting her back into their lives. Now granted, we don’t need this movie to turn into I Know Why the Caged Dragon Sings, but surely Valka’s abandonment shouldn’t be so easily dealt with. And then having introduced this major development — and a song that showcases Blanchett’s lovely mezzo-soprano voice — the movie then largely marginalizes Valka during Hiccup’s ultimate showdown with Drago.
The sequel does acknowledge late on what the original movie didn’t, which is that while these dragons mostly behave like house pets, they’re still capable of killing people, even the ones they’re closest to. Regardless, the movie doesn’t do enough with this, and DeBlois’ script continues to waste the comic talents of supporting players like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig. It’s sad — with the technical expertise and imagination of DreamWorks’ animators, the studio’s films could easily rival Disney/Pixar’s as works of genius and power. It’s the material that keeps them from that level.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Voices by Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, and Gerard Butler. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois, based on Cressida Cowell’s series of books. Rated PG.