Pet dragons, taken as a whole, are worth any trouble they might cause. At least that’s what the Vikings of Berk have learned five years after the chief’s son, Hiccup, trained his first dragon. How to Train Your Dragon 2 endeavors to fly above its predecessor but, like many sequels, fails to capitalize on the intelligence and heart that made the original soar.
The island of Berk became idyllic once humans learned to get along with dragons. The village has transformed into a dragon’s paradise, complete with stables, a racing stadium, and a network of pipes in case of accidental fires. The citizens have changed, too: chieftain Stoick’s beard has streaks of gray, and Hiccup is growing peach fuzz.
Ever the naturalist and pusher-of-boundaries, Hiccup charts the borders of the known world. However, he’s really trying to avoid the responsibility of becoming a chieftain like his father. When he discovers Drago Bludvist, a dragon trainer bent on conquering the world, Hiccup seeks to reason with the villain—but instead opens a whole can of dragons.
Master of fantasy C.S. Lewis wrote about what makes any “faerie story” endure. It’s not only creating and exploring a new world, or imagining elaborate creatures and cultures. Fantasy certainly is not escapist. As he said in his classic essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s to be Said”: “At its best it [fantasy] can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.”
Instead of flying into abstraction, fantasy is rooted in reality. By creating a world completely beyond our own, writers and filmmakers can make the vague concrete, turning flighty ideals into understandable truths. The best fantasy or myth is bluntly honest about real life.
How to Train your Dragon 2 (HTTYD 2 in future reference) veers into the escapist. The film excels at visual innovation: Toothless and Hiccup’s flights rival the first film, and the art direction soars. Deforested pines, massive icebergs, and yellow-leafed forests glide beneath your feet as Hiccup explores new lands. Some of the best shots of the film come in a dragon colony, where hundreds of dragons circle through a jungle. At one moment, a gigantic white dragon rises from a lake and throws Hiccup into silhouette, evoking classic Japanese animation.
But the substance of the film leaves much to be desired. While the first movie did not intend to challenge viewers with any deep philosophy, the sequel’s script sports with the audience’s intelligence. In one early scene where Hiccup and his fiancée, Astrid, discuss the future, the characters expose their thoughts for the audience’s benefit rather than their own. Even Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera’s comedic delivery can’t cover the stilted script. When Hiccup complains that he can’t be a chief like his father, Astrid has to blatantly foreshadow the movie’s theme: “What you’re searching for is in here,” she says, laying her hand over Hiccup’s heart.
While the rest of the dialog is not quite as painful, plot holes and unlikely situations erase most of the fantasy’s credibility. The filmmakers suggest Drago wants to take over the world because of a traumatic past, but that can’t explain why he’s going to the excessive trouble of training dragons and raising up a massive army. Drago actually proves himself a terrible military commander, since Hiccup’s ragtag team of friends seems to fight better than Drago’s hardened warriors who are double the kids’ age.
About the only compelling character is Valka, Hiccup’s mother. The Viking predecessor of today’s animal rights activists, she remained with the dragons who kidnapped her because she saw herself in their eyes. But when she realizes how her son shares her spirit, she regrets abandoning him. Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, she doesn’t think she’ll be accepted at home—and is surprised when her family loves her unconditionally. Her relationship with her husband, Stoick, is one of the better examples of unconditional love between a husband and wife in a recent animated film. I would have liked to see Valka’s character develop more, to see how she adapted to living among humans again. But the film forgets her to focus on Godzilla-like dragon battles and destruction.
Hiccup also seems to have abandoned any lessons he may have learned before. In the first film, Hiccup loses his leg during a dragon fight that would have never happened had he told his father the truth about dragons. This time around, Stoick gives advice that his son ignores: Drago and Stoick are old enemies, so the chief urges his son to protect Berk by hunkering down for an attack. But Hiccup barges out to reason with Drago and try to make peace. The teen’s brash action endangers the entire village and leads to several deaths, but all the characters laud Hiccup for his “leadership.”
To the filmmakers, leadership seems to consist of striking out on one’s own wisdom and hoping for the best. When Hiccup has to lead his people against Drago, he says, “I guess you can only try.” I’m surprised Winston Churchill didn’t pop up to give his young ancestor a hearty glare. When a real world-dominating dictator threatened his small island, he responded, “You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory…. Victory however long and hard the road may be.”
Because it is a fantasy, because it is a story aimed at children, these ethical errors provide a skewed picture of reality: it’s okay to disregard your parents and run away from home. Leadership is about ensuring peace at all costs. Both people—and dragons—act good or evil based on past circumstances, not current choices or inborn nature. In that sense, HTTYD 2 is escapist in the worst sense of the word.
While this movie summons up just enough beautiful animation and emotional moments to win over many viewers, writer/director Dean DeBlois lost the charm of the original film. Where the first film’s humor and characters surprised, the sequel’s characters appear as rehashed stock figures from other Dreamworks films.
When I left the theater with several friends, one said that if the film didn’t have any dialog, it would have been fantastic. Well said, my friend. Well said.