When I saw the original How to Train Your Dragon in theaters, it was the best use of 3D in a movie I'd seen yet, and remains a memorable keynote experience in my history of movie-watching. It was one of my favourite films of 2010, somehow coming ahead of Toy Story 3 (though I've since revisited both films and Toy Story 3 has grown in my affection to an almost-equal standing with HTTYD.) So my expectations were quite high for the How to Train Your Dragon sequel, an action-packed dragon-flying adventure set five years after the first film. I offer a sigh as I likely find myself in the minority in my reflections: while the second film is fine, it isn't exceptional and doesn't compare to the beauty and imagination of its predecessor.
How to Train Your Dragon explored so many rich themes in its imaginative and complex world. There was the father-son dynamic between the awkward Hiccup and the brutish Stoick. There was the conflict between the worlds of Viking and dragon (human and nature, respectively). The coming-of-age story of a young dreamer struggling with affinity and autonomy in a harsh world was captivating as young Hiccup transformed from an outcast to a leader in his community through the power of patience and understanding. Hiccup fostered reconciliation between the dragons and Vikings, painting a beautiful picture of biblical stewardship of the creation around us.
In contrast, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot of cool flying dragon sequences...and that's about it. These are awe-inspiring in themselves, and there were numerous moments where the visuals forced a quiet "whoa" from my lips in wonder. Yet instead of a picture of stewardship and understanding, the climatic lesson to be learned here is to fight and protect, a blow-for-blow battle against two men who are shadows of one another. While Vikings and dragons live in peace in Hiccup's community of Berk, a dragon army is being captured and created by Drago Bludvist, a hulking antagonist with little-to-no backstory or motivation for his depravity. He's just a bad guy who wants to capture dragons and destroy Berk. How he manages to capture and control dragons is never really explained (he has an "alpha" mind-controlling dragon called a Bewilderbeast, but it's unclear how a tiny man yelling loudly could motivate this powerful and impressive creature), while Hiccup and company prefer their method of harmonious dragon-riding. Hiccup naively attempts to reason with Drago and convince him through reason that war is unnecessary, but Drago (of course) doesn't comply, leading to the final dragon-vs-dragon showdown. For this film, might makes right and standing up to the bully by punching him in the face wins the day.
The most affecting moments come with the revelation of Valka, Hiccup's long-lost mother who has been saving dragons from Drago's clutches for two decades. The reunion of Valka and Stoick is powerful and tear-inducing, but unfortunately Valka does little to contribute or actually move the story along, apart from showing Hiccup where he got his dragon-loving genes. A love-quadrilateral (there's more than three, so a "love triangle" doesn't seem like the appropriate designation) between secondary characters attempts at humour, but this is a much darker film overall than its predecessor. Even in this darkness, Hiccup feels strangely aloof, particularly in comparison to the first film.
Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon 2 offers some impressive visuals and creative world-building, but the final act and overall message felt overtaken by the typical "let's have an epic battle sequence!" ubiquitous in the summer blockbusters of our culture. I may be a minority here, and perhaps this review comes across as more cynical than it should, as I did enjoy myself and found the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless to be delightful. Maybe I'm making too many comparisons to the beloved first film, but a series of films elicits comparability. Should a third film arrive in this series--and it likely will--I hope the filmmakers will lose the dragon battles and emphasize the power of love, humility, and self-sacrifice found in the original film.