The first word that comes to mind when describing How To Train Your Dragon 2 is “solid.” Not great or amazing, mind you. It hews pretty close to the kid-friendly swashbuckling of its predecessor, and doesn’t break any genuinely new thematic or conceptual ground. But also like its predecessor it’s visually gorgeous, and comes with some moments of unexpected moral weight.
It’s been a little while since the vikings of Berk discovered that the dragons plaguing them were actually gentle and intelligent creatures trying to survive their own looming threat. Now, the dragons and the vikings live in cooperative harmony, and the film opens with a rousing dragon-rider race that involves snatching up hapless sheep and dropping them into baskets.
But Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the engineer of this accord from the first film, is not in attendance. Rather, he and Toothless – a “Night Fury” that’s small, black, highly maneuverable, and spits highly destructive firebolts – have taken to exploring the lands around Berk. This vexes Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler), who hopes his son will one day take over as chief of the tribe. But despite the film’s subtle gestures towards manhood – a slightly stockier frame and a five-o’clock shadow among them – Hiccup remains a brainy dreamer and a bit of a goof, and laments to his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) that he is woefully unsuited for the role.
It’s not long before Hiccup’s travels bring him across a gang of dragon trappers led by the preening Eret (Kit Harington), who work for vicious Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a man whose name inspires grim for boding even in the indefatigable Stoick. Drago hates dragons with an abiding and grandiose fury, and after discovering a way to psychologically control the creatures he’s turned his obsession towards building a dragon army.
Outside of Berk, the dragons’ one safe haven from Drago is an underground paradise overseen by – and I’m not giving anything away here, thanks to the trailers – Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchet). Valka left Berk long ago because she feared the vikings could never live in peace with dragons, and it falls to Hiccup to convince her she was mistaken. Then Drago sets out to conquer Berk’s dragons, and off everyone goes to save the day.
The first How To Train Your Dragon was a team effort by writer-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, based off the books by Cressida Cowell. This sequel was written and directed by Dean DeBlois, and it has the tighter story and snowballing confidence of a singular auteur effort. One of the things that give it substance is how it subtly flips the script from the first film, which was the story of a son trying to convince a bumbling father of a different and better path. This time it’s a father trying to convince a bumbling son that he’s actually cut out for the demands of adulthood.
And if the first How To Train Your Dragon was about the establishment of community and trust, this film is about nurturing and preserving those values when they are tested. There are innumerable rabbit holes a lesser film would have gone down to gin up tension, such as drawing out Valka’s distrust of the other vikings or the difficulties of her reunion with Stoic. But How To Train Your Dragon 2 indulges in none of that. It’s refreshing to see a group of basically intelligent and well-meaning people quickly recognize one another as common allies, and form a working without any real bullshit.
This also means the film has to plumb deeper waters for its dramatic tension, and the film gains some substance from the attempt. But it also sets up a few challenges a kids’ movie isn’t quite prepared to handle. For one thing, as uplifting as the family reunion is, the full consequences of Valka’s abandonment of her family is never really reckoned with — especially given how her son was able to accomplish the same shared goal without absconding. As a result, she comes off as a bit feckless and irresponsible, traits the script doesn’t seem to intent to communicate.
The bigger problem comes when How To Train Your Dragon 2 really puts the question of trust to the test, in a sequence that delivers the film’s one real tragedy. How do we – humans or dragons – conceive of ourselves and or friendships when our minds themselves are contingent, limited things that can be damaged, undone, or overthrown by a sufficiently powerful force. It’s a remarkably dark question to pose, and the movie gains thematic heft because of it. But being a kids’ film, it also glances away to quickly, and resolves things with a climax and a thematic lesson that’s a tad too pat given the abyss it opened up.
That said, this is a full-throated swashbuckler that does manage some narrative flourishes of genuine poetry. The voice performances are all fun, and visually the film is gorgeous. The scenes of flight have a real visceral thrill to them, some of the battle sequences and creatures achieve a truly awe-inspiring scale, the visual details are remarkable (see Hiccup’s five-o’clock shadow), and there are moments of such fluid and organic animation you’d think you were watching a live action film. Unlike some other movies, this one is made for the IMAX 3D format.
So, like I said: solid.