2010’s How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderful movie. In addition to being beautifully animated, it’s a story about understanding, ingenuity, and compassion wrapped in the almost-always-endearing child-and-his/her-pet tale. Dean DeBlois‘ How to Train Your Dragon 2 physically expands the canvas of the original by bringing in new characters, new locations, and new dragons, but in his attempt to make the sequel bigger, he’s also spread it thin. Although it still keeps the central focus on the relationship between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless, the pacing is erratic as the story tries to hop between plotlines, themes, and scattered characters. The movie is still sprinkled with charm, humor, and warmth, but it never holds together as tightly as the original.
Set five years after the first movie, Berk has warmly embraced dragons and now has them as part of everyday life ranging from blacksmithing to racing. While his friends Astrid (America Ferrara), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) are goofing around, Hiccup and Toothless are out exploring. Hiccup wants to discover new lands and new dragons even though his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), wants his son to stay put and become the new chief. But in Hiccup’s travels, he discovers his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington), and Eret’s sinister boss, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), which leads to a whole mess of conflicts.
These conflicts tie together, but they don’t have much weight because they’re scattered across the story. Valka has a beef with Drago because he’s trying to rule the world with the dragons she admires (Valka is a Jane Goodall-type), but they rarely interact. Drago is Eret’s boss but they have one scene together where Drago acts threatening. Valka’s return hits on a reunited family aspect to the story, but it’s a payoff without a setup. We’re thrown into the deep end of a new world, and we’re supposed to care because we liked the first movie. While I still like the characters from the first film, their new relationships are underdeveloped, especially when you have an absolutely boring antagonist like Drago.
Additionally, although some characters have grown in interesting ways like Snotlout and Fishlegs pining over a disinterested Ruffnut, Hiccup has lost some of his edge. I could watch Hiccup and Toothless playing for two hours, and their relationship is the heart of the story. But on his own, Hiccup has lost his sense of humor and replaced it with a maturity that may be admirable, but it’s also uninteresting. Beyond his relationship with Toothless, Hiccup’s actions now range from wise diplomacy, gritty determination, and wide-eyed awe at the larger world of dragons.
His story is further dwarfed by trying to squeeze in everyone else and yet never getting enough of their story. Astrid still has a role to play, but she’s mostly Hiccup’s girlfriend. The angry, suspicious, but ultimately accepting girl has grown up, but those qualities have been replaced by almost nothing. At least Snotlout and Fishlegs get to have corny affection for the annoyed Ruffnut, and while some of the most beautiful moments in the movie come from finding Valka, the reason for why she abandoned Hiccup is silly.
For all of its faults, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is still outstanding among its DreamWorks Animation peers. Whereas I honestly forgot that Mr. Peabody & Sherman came out only a few months ago, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a personality. It has a vivid palette and the main cast remains memorable. It’s also willing at one point to go to a place that’s much darker than anything I can recall from DreamWorks Animation’s other movies. Granted, DWA films set a very low bar, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 soars high above it through its verve and the sense that the people making it actually care about their work rather than cranking out more product for the studio.
But the new movie can’t fly higher than the original. It doesn’t have the strong pacing, the right balance among the relationships, or a strong, central conflict. The film’s ambition is admirable, but the movie lacks the polish to make its expanded world engrossing and come together in a meaningful way beyond half-hearted notions of responsibility and how to literally train one’s dragon. There’s still plenty to like in How to Train Your Dragon 2, but it rarely recaptures what’s worth loving about the original.