It’s been such a strong few months for animation — with the touching revisionism of Frozen, the multi-dimensional satire of The Lego Movie, and even the refreshingly oddball humor of relatively minor entries like Mr. Peabody & Sherman and The Nut Job — that How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a blast from the past. Here’s a big, sleek pop sequel — created on next-generation animation and lighting software, with no expense spared — and yet it feels ironically dated. This follow-up to the charming 2010 Vikings-and-dragons adventure from Dreamworks Animation is a typical ride movie, exalting in swooping, sweeping, and whooshing along with racing, fighting dragons against dramatic landscapes. It takes the fast, freewheeling wish-fulfillment fantasy of the original, expands its scope, and earnestly turns everything up to 11 — convinced that more is more. “With Vikings on the backs of dragons, the world just got a whole lot bigger,” our hero tells us early on; the same could be said of this series.
If the principal charm of the first film was in watching hapless teenage Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) become friends with a cuddly “Night Fury” dragon called Toothless and prove his prowess to his disbelieving village, this time out, we get to see Hiccup maturing into more of a typical hero. Everybody’s a little bit older, and the village of Berk now no longer hunts dragons, but lives peacefully with them. “Dragons used to be a problem … now, they’ve moved in,” Hiccup tells us helpfully as we see the custom stables, the all-you-can-eat dragon-feeding stations, and the dragon washes. The young man’s father, Chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler), expects his son to become chieftain, but Hiccup, ever the loner, doesn’t feel cut out for speeches and leading others. He’s still a resolute outsider when the movie opens, skipping the dragon-racing tournament in Berk and instead going off alone with his beloved Toothless, swooping over the seas, racing whales, and discovering new lands.
One day, they come across a group of dragon-trappers led by Eret (Kit Harington). These men capture the beasts for a mad, bad warlord named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who is building a fierce dragon army. With those who enslave dragons on one side and those who befriend dragons on the other, war seems imminent. But Hiccup is convinced there’s a peaceful way to stop it from happening. After all, it was his discovery of, and belief in, the goodness of dragons that led to Berk’s alliance with the creatures in the first place; why shouldn’t the same attitude apply to ostensibly bad men?
Writer-director Dean DeBlois has compared this second film to The Empire Strikes Back (not a modest claim, that) in its darker overtones and its expanded canvas. But a more appropriate comparison point might be Avatar, the James Cameron blockbuster that set the box office on fire several months before the first Dragon movie came out. Like Cameron’s film, Dragon 2 uses speed, fluidity, and the depth of 3-D to give us skies full of fighting, diverse creatures as far as the eye can see, as we sweep in and out of clouds, across the surfaces of oceans, and over and around dramatic cliffs. It’s a visually impressive ride, but somewhat underwhelming as drama; you may feel like you’ve been in these battles before.
Indeed, despite its expanded, ambitious battle sequences, Dragon 2 is at its best when it quiets down and dares to be intimate. Relatively early on in the film, our hero is captured by Valka (Cate Blanchett), a mysterious, solitary woman who, as it turns out, is also his long-lost mother and Stoick’s much-mourned wife. Taken away by a dragon many years ago and presumed dead, she now saves and shelters the dragons that Drago’s minions attempt to capture. A tender scene where Valka and Stoick hesitantly share a memory of their wedding song is beautifully rendered, and offers a good example of why you might want people like Blanchett voicing your supporting characters. This restored family dynamic — Hiccup’s ongoing, headstrong back-and-forth with his father and his newfound relationship with his mother — lays the emotional groundwork that justifies much of the rest of the movie. It makes all that vaguely tired whooshing and swooping and fighting worthwhile.