Warning: this article contains some spoilery references to Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon 2, as well the original, How To Train Your Dragon. Read at your own peril.
I don’t do extensive reviews. Most of the time, if a movie intrigues me or misses the mark, I make a one sentence blurb about it in Facebook to my friends. But after seeing How To Train Your Dragon 2 in the theater this past weekend, I found myself flummoxed and bothered enough to try to pen some reactions in long form.
In the first How To Train Your Dragon (based on the books by Cressida Cowell), Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a 15-year-old Viking lad who lives on a island called Berk that’s under constant attack by dragons. Hiccup is different than his burly, dragon-killing father Stoic and the other villagers. He rescues an injured black Night Fury dragon, called Toothless because he has retractable teeth, and then teaches himself to ride him. Along the way they learn more about themselves. While the whole village is concerned with killing the beasts, Hiccup becomes an animal lover/trainer and ends up teaching valuable lessons to his entire tribe about living with nature instead of destroying it (until they face the monstrous Green Death dragon at the end of the film). Both dragon and rider develop a deep bond, symbolized by (spoilers ahead) Toothless’ destroyed tail fin and Hiccup losing part of his own leg.
The first movie was a box office smash. It had a straightforward plot, a realistic relationship between an awkward teenager and his stubborn father, and an even more awkward first love between Hiccup and a fiercely independent teenage warrioress named Astrid. The movie was well animated, had beautiful scenery, wonderful flying scenes and the voice actors made the movie entertaining for both kids and adults.
It’s taken Dreamworks and the film’s director over four years to script, animate and produce the next installment, How To Train Your Dragon 2. Critical reception and hopes for a box office smash were high. The movie received some excellent reviews. It had all the pieces to make it a blockbuster: the original voice cast, more dragons, better 3D animation, a surprise newcomer (who didn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, thanks to the trailers) and more of everything that made the original great.
However, the film is currently not doing as well at the box office. It premiered up against another sequel, 22 Jump Street, an R-rated comedy. It’s not like that film’s audience is taking theatergoers away, but the movie’s lack of box office pizzazz (and the hopes of making another smash like Frozen) seems to relegate it to just another quickly forgotten summer release
The critics loved this movie, but the audience where I saw it were tiny in number and low in reaction. Sitting there for almost two hours, I found the movie (and this is my opinion, remember) mildly interesting and actually boring in sections. Since How To Train Your Dragon was the reason why I tried my hand at writing middle grade and young adult fiction, I pondered what went wrong.
In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is older. His father wants him to take his place as chief of the tribe on Berk. Hiccup avoids these responsibilities, exploring and surveying the area while flying Toothless. He runs into another dragon master who turns out to be the “not-so-big” surprise character (if you’ve seen the trailers, the dragon’s out of the bag, so-to-speak). [All right, it’s his mother Valka.] She tries to free and nuture dragons. But there’s another guy, Drago Bloodfist, who has personal reasons to hates dragons but for some reason uses them to destroy other dragons (yep, I was confused too) and threatens those who love dragons (mainly Berk). Oh and there’s another really really big dragon (like the Green Death) who has control over other dragons. This leads to tragedy, as the monster dragon takes control of Toothless and makes him do something horrible to Hiccup. After the tragedy, there’s a confrontation at Berk. Hiccup and Toothless persevere over Drago and the really realy big dragon to win the day. (As I said, I’m trying to do this without ruining possible moviegoers.)
So why was I bored? I think I could count the reasons as the following:
1) The movie ignored the film’s target audience: young kids and tweens. This is a big one. You can’t write a story and not involve your audience. The audience identified with Hiccup in the first film because he was awkward and just trying things out. He acted like a teenager and he took the audience with him on his adventures. The Hiccup in HTTYD2 is forced to make adult decisions–become chief, be a leader and protect his tribe. He’s reunited with one parent and (well, what happens after that is a spoiler so I won’t mention it). But that’s it.
2) Hiccup has little to no interaction with the other young characters. Hiccup’s interaction with the other teens made the first film fun. At first, Hiccup didn’t fit it in and caused trouble. He suddenly started to become a dragon master (because he was learning dragon lore through Toothless) and became their idol. Later, he becomes their hero by using his knowledge and sharing it with them. In the new film, the younger characters–especially Astrid– are separated from Hiccup for most of the story. Astrid clearly loves and admires Hiccup, but there’s none of the first film’s awkwardness and fumbling. Their relationship in the film boils down to two scenes with dialogue and a few things they yell at one another, like “Watch out!”and “Go get Toothless!”
3) There are too many new characters … doing nothing. In addition to Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka, there’s a dragon napper (voiced by the actor who plays Jon Snow in GoT) and the villain Drago Bloodfist who is not seen until almost three quarters of the way into the story. HTTYD2 is mostly a story without a visible primary antagonist. Valka’s disappearance for twenty years is explained away with almost with the same irrelevance as Homer Simpson’s hippy protester mother in The Simpsons. The dragon napper is introduced as a rogue (like Flynn Rider in Tangled) but he eventually helps Astrid and the other younger characters. Then his character has nothing more to do. There’s lots more stuff in this movie. New dragons with new traits. New villains. New weapons. New super huge dragon. Very little of it comes together.
4) The storyline tries to be dark. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there are sinister forces at work. Bad men are doing bad things with dragons. A major character suffers a tragic turn. Again, this is a thump against the movie for forgetting its target audience. The writer and director of both films admitted his fondness for The Empire Strikes Back with its surpriser plot twist and dark turn for the heroes. Going dark has become a really annoying trend in movies (think The Dark Knight and Harry Potter) that really doesn’t belong in a film intended for younger kids. Going dark satisfied the film’s critics, but left the young people watching it cold.
5) The film confounds its own principals. The whole “dragons and humans living peacefully with one another” motif that was the heart at the end of the first movie is abandoned by both sides in this one. Hiccup tries to talk reason and sense into the dragon nappers and then Drago, but ends up using Toothless as a weapon anyway. His initial peace-making persona is dropped when he must assume the role his father wanted him to take anyway. Even Drago–who hates dragons–uses a monster-sized dragon under his control to destroy other folks’ dragons (and their village). Confusing? Yes.
So there. I’ve wagged my tongue. Have you seen the movie? What did you think of it?