The first How To Train Your Dragon is an animation classic. No one can dispute that. Adapted from a relatively obscure series of children’s novels, it was released in 2010 to near universal acclaim from audiences, garnering two Oscar nominations and becoming Dreamworks’ highest regarded film in a decade (stripping Chicken Run of the title), as well as the great honour of being one of the few films to ever make me cry (joining the illustrious company of My Dog Skip, The Road and The Elephant Man). Basically it’s bloody great and has a permanent place in my cinematic heart… but alas this fervent fandom probably set How To Train Your Dragon 2 up to fail.
That’s not to say it doesn’t retain some of the magic and wonder of its predecessor. The Viking/Dragon world is still as breathtakingly realised as last time, the score is once again excellent, the character design of the dragon hordes is some of the most imaginative you’re likely to see in a major studio picture, Toothless remains the most adorable creature ever committed to film, and the friendship between him and Hiccup is the most potent and reliable heartstring-puller around (there’s some extra emotional beats thrown in which prove incredibly effective - that blind dragon had me feeling things). But away from these already established elements, it feels quite a bit undercooked, with the plot jumping from point to point as if it’s not quite sure which one to commit to. You get all the important character beats built up from the first film as the sponge of this cake, but the story the script and the new characters are a pallid, unappetising icing on top, which barely covers the whole thing.
By now, everyone knows the big reveal, and if you don’t, you’re best looking away… Hiccup finds his long-lost mother Volka, presumed dead for his entire life, to be living on an isolated utopia as a Viking hippie, a Jane Goodall for dragons in the mist. The scene that serves as the introduction of Volka in her masked splendour is superb, and had it not been ruined by its constant use in trailers and TV spots, it would perhaps be one of my favourite scenes of the year. But her big reveal being spoiled is not the only disservice done to Volka. She unfortunately follows the increasing trend of strong female characters being used to further the male hero’s journey before being cast to the wayside. It’s happened so often recently, from The Lego Movie, to The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, to Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion and Edge Of Tomorrow; fascinating female characters are built up, given agency and their own arcs, only to become love interests, sex objects or existing solely to serve the male hero’s development and motivation; in this case, Volka exists to give Hiccup a few rote motivational speeches at key points, and that’s it. She even steps aside from a fight with the villain to let her estranged husband take him on, despite the film informing us she’s more than adequately handled various assaults over two decades on her own. It feels like a betrayal of what we’d expect and a complete waste of Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning talents on a disappointing character. You’d like to think if the filmmakers had followed their original plan of using Volka as a conflicted antagonist, she may have gotten a better shrift, but then you see how underdeveloped Drago Bludvist (a nominee for worst villain name of the year) turned out to be and you wonder if the grass would really be greener.
Speaking of Drago, it’s a little off-putting that the first and only major character of colour seen in the franchise happens to be an unreasonable, maniacal, murderous, dragon-abusing warlord. Full credit to Djimon Honsou giving a good showing in the recording booth, but it’s just uncomfortable seeing an ambiguously brown antagonist (with a potentially interesting backstory unfortunately ignored) being fought off by a whiter-than-white-bread cast of good guys. Good guys like the now seemingly typecast Kit Harrington, who proves himself to be as dull and wooden an animated character as he does a flesh & blood one, although at least his Eret, Son Of Eret provides some laughs via his bulging biceps.
I’ll be honest, despite being the main character and central to the whole franchise, Jay Baruchel really detracts from How 2. His nasally voice works in live-action, when he’s playing a slimy corporate PR as in Robocop, or a amiable stoned slacker, as in most other things; hell, even in the first film, this helped reinforce Hiccup’s youth, naiveté and inexperience. But now, the character is a “dragon master”, a swashbuckling adventurer and future chief of his clan, as well as being Neville Longbottom’d into a handsome young man, yet he still sounds like he’s on the receiving end of a dozen wedgies a day, and one scare away from wetting his riding britches. It’s frustrating that Baruchel’s range doesn’t extend to the more mature plot elements that the film broaches, albeit very clumsily in passing.
However, for these disappointing misses, there’s still a wave of hits and some of that original charm left over to keep the franchise afloat for the third instalment in two years time. And no doubt, that one will keep up the tradition and make me cry too.