It’s really hot outside. It’s even hotter inside; my apartment has no air conditioning. I’m not in the best mood to write, despite the fact that I recently saw what many thought would be one of he biggest movies of the year, Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2. It’s a very good animated movie, especially impressive given the company’s recent output (there may have even been one about snails at some point). In fact, Dragon 2 fills the void left by Pixar this summer.
It certainly looks as good as a Pixar production, if not better. The movie’s look has grown up exceptionally well, just like it’s protagonist Hiccup. The off-putting designs of some of the characters have been fixed, but it still retains the distinctive cartoon look of the original.
At the same time, everything from water to clouds to fire, down to the scales of the dragons themselves look painstakingly detailed, and many of the shots are composed as if there were a physical camera in the world. The animation of the characters, especially the dragons, are incredibly realistic, with facial expressions and body cues giving off a wider range of emotions than in something like Frozen.
The dragons are especially well-animated; modeled on animal behavior, the dragons’ movements in the backgrounds of scenes allow for the most hilarious and charming moments in the entire film. But when the action kicks in (and this is one of the most action packed movies of the year), the visual fidelity allows for scenes that are breathtaking, thrilling, visceral, even remarkably creepy at times. It also happens to be a better giant monster movie than Godzilla, believe it or not.
What results from all of this is an almost perfect bend of realism and unique, fantastical style. It truly is worth seeing in the theaters just for the sights alone. Complementing the masterful visuals is the return of John Powell’s epic score. While not as mind-shatteringly fresh and beautiful as the original movies, Powell retraces the musical themes of the first film and makes them sound even more rousing.
But despite the master craftsmanship on display, I’m still not very compelled to write about the movie. And that matches the general feeling around the movie this summer. Even though it has a well-liked, successful predecessor, the movie failed to do big business box office-wise (at least for something as big as this). The same way I’m only mildly interested in talking about it, audiences seem only mildly interested in seeing it.
What is it about How to Train Your Dragon 2 that makes people act so hesitantly towards it? Is it the title, which at this point has absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot and instead makes the movie sound especially redundant? Is it the fact that four years is just too long to wait between installments? Or maybe it’s because, at its very core, the film really is just as basic as any other animated movie.
See, the story of the first movie felt very familiar in that it was about someone trying to convince everyone else of something. But it made up for that unoriginality with the wonderfully-plotted relationship between Hiccup and his deadly, adorable dragon named Toothless. In the sequel, the world may feel larger and more substantial, and there are even more characters, but the most important element, the character dynamics, haven’t really expanded to the same extent.
Towards the end of the film, the movie does try to fix itself, throwing a big and surprisingly mature curveball that would presumably change Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship forever. But the film never goes far enough in exploring the effects of this game-changer, maybe because it wants to wait for How to Train Your Dragon 3 (which isn’t really a good excuse in my opinion).
But wait, there’s more! The villains, played by Kit Harington and
Digimon Djimon Hounsou are underdeveloped and straight out of the ‘Handbook of Evil Characters’. Hiccup’s friend characters, who were wasted in the first film, are even more wasted here. Worse still, they’ve been relegated to grating comic relief, the kind of unnecessary wise-cracking characters that animated movies still often cling to for no reason other than a boardroom meeting dictated “we need more jokes children will understand!*” *Kids are smarter than this.
Luckily, the main cast pulls enough of the wait. Hiccup is now a confident warrior who wields a freaking fire sword while retaining his open-minded attitude. I have to admit I miss the more bumbling, unsure-of-himself version of Hiccup from the original (what can I say, it spoke to me), but it is admittedly satisfying to see a franchise that is willing to fully change the main character so drastically between entries. (even Toy Story was not as daring in that regard).
Similarly, America Ferrera’s boring tough girl Astrid has now been upgraded to likable girlfriend, her character transformation illustrating just how successful Hiccup was in the first film at transforming the minds of the people around him. Gerard Butler’s Stoic is given a bigger role and has the most emotional moments in the movie, but the father/son arc isn’t as deep as the film trumpets it up to. Cate Blanchett’s new character is wonderfully voiced but her relationship with Hiccup is equally simplistic.
All of this leads me to believe that my reluctance towards the movie, and maybe the subconscious reluctance towards it from audiences, comes from the film’s push-and-pull between progress and and stasis. It’s main characters feel better realized, but their relationships are stuck in place. The world feels far wider and more complex, but the actual plot details are familiar and flimsy. And despite the better-looking action and grander scope, thematically the movie feels less consequential than the first.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a technical masterpiece with ambition to spare, but when it comes down to it, the film lacks just as much from its emotional resonance as it gains from its marvelous special effects. Regardless, you won’t see a more engrossing animated movie this summer, maybe even this year. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s still a notable achievement.
Score: 3.5 out of 5