by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I get why everybody is head over heels in love with How To Train Your Dragon. I do. It’s a good movie, and the fact that it came from the studio that only half a decade earlier believed that Shark Tale was quality work that they were willing to stand behind and release to the general public is friggin’ miraculous. It had a good amount of heart, some great visuals and some beautiful or just plain excellent individual scenes. I would stop short of declaring it “great,” though. Despite those individual scenes (Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless, the montage of the pair slowly warming to each other, and the realisation that Hiccup has lost one of his legs are the ones that currently spring to mind), the film never quite came together as a whole, for me. It felt a bit too unfocussed, expected me to care about a motley crew of secondary characters who weren’t particularly likable or relevant until the plot said they were, the animation wasn’t quite up to the ambitions it clearly had, and the Astrid stuff infuriated me to no end. As a film on its own, divorced from contexts surrounding it, it’s very good at what it is but disappointingly falls short of greatness. As a gold star “Yes, DreamWorks! You’re on your way; more like this, please!” piece of encouragement, I can get behind it.
2010 was four years ago and, in that timeframe, DreamWorks Animation have clearly taken that gold star encouragement as incentive to get better. One need only look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for their last three films in 12 months (70% for The Croods, 67% for Turbo and 79% for Mr. Peabody & Sherman) compared to those in the same time period from 2006 to 2007 (72% for Aardman’s Flushed Away, which is being generous, 40% for Shrek The Third and 51% for Bee Movie), whilst the Kung Fu Panda movies (the second of which I haven’t seen and the first of which is due a re-watch) have gathered a substantial fan-base and the first DreamWorks film I had watched in five years (with the exception of Puss In Boots), Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was a genuinely great film that I was completely surprised by the quality of.
You may be wondering why I used a full paragraph and one terrible, comma-filled sentence to tell you this stuff. Simple; I wanted to properly set the scene and let you know that it is no longer 2010. It is 2014. We live in a world where Walt Disney Feature Animation has been on a hot-streak not seen since the early 90s, where Pixar have taken a huge battering after a string of sub-par for them and just plain sub-par films, where Laika proved Coraline was not just a fluke, and where The Lego Movie was legitimately fantastic. It’s a changed world and the animation landscape has changed with it. How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, is still stuck in 2010. I have pretty much the exact same qualms and praises with it as I did the original, and the film still fails to live up to the potential its best individual scenes clearly demonstrate it to have. There are legitimately great films in here, but they keep getting lost by the wider picture which is just “good”. Naturally, if you loved the original and had next-to-no problems with it, I guarantee you’ll love this one too cos it’s the exact same. I keep hearing that bit in 22 Jump Street where Nick Offerman snidely remarks that the case they’re tackling was exactly the same as the last one. The exact same. It fits here far more snugly than I’m comfortable to let it get away with.
We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Berk five years after the climax of the first film. The island has become a practical paradise with dragons and humans co-existing peacefully and happily together. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being groomed by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) for the island’s chief, but he’d much rather head off and explore the world with his dragon best-buddy, Toothless. It’s on one of these explorations that they come across a destroyed fortress home to a group dragon trappers, led by Erit (Kit Harrington), who work for ruthless warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is building an army of dragons for mysterious reasons that you can probably guess due to him being a villain and the mere mention of his name causes Stoick to lock down Berk. Hiccup believes that Drago can be reasoned with, though, and sets off to convince the man that dragons and humans can live together peacefully. And that’s when he runs into his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) who has been rescuing and living among dragons for the past 20 years.
Right, I’m going to stick to the stuff I liked first, because the stuff I liked, I really liked. Exhibit A? This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous CG animated films I have ever seen. The original HTTYD occasionally touched the level of quality present in here, but that was held back by the technology of the time; some noticeable chroma-keying, an inconsistency in fluidity of animation with regards to humans, weird drops in quality and detail when things get busy. Fortunately, four years have passed since then and HHTYD2 finally delivers consistently at the level it wants to. There are times here where I could have sworn that this was just CG overlay on real-life actors performing the material but there’s still a stylistic tinge to the art-design that keeps it from just being creepy.
The key word here is detail. There is a breath-taking amount of it going about in nearly every single scene, no matter whether it’s just Hiccup and his family sat in a cave or a giant battle sequence with hundreds, if not thousands, of constantly-moving variables on-screen at once. It brings the world to life and makes the little things stick out that much more. Early on, Hiccup has a little tuft of his hair knotted/braided (I don’t know hair terms, sue me) by his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and it stays that way for the entire length of the movie; it’s rather tiny and the film never draws attention to it, but it’s there in every shot that I could see its existence in. Every dragon has individual little marks and bumps that set them apart from others in their species, instead of just being palette swaps. Tiny little crusts of frost appear on Stoick’s beard and moustache when he goes flying through Arctic-like conditions, enough that you can tell it’s not too cold by the fact that they don’t cover up his entire beard, you can still see its colour peeking through. There’s a section in the finale that communicates the majority of events happening purely through little changes in the shape and movement of a pair of eyeballs. Details, the kind you may not immediately notice but only add to the life of the world.
Human animation is extremely fluid and naturalistic, again to such an extent that I would not be surprised to find out that they were primarily done by actors in mo-cap suits. At times they’re a bit too distractingly realistic, the animators putting in too many unnecessary shrugs and bounces and movements as if they’re showing off technologically, but those moments are rare. 90% of the time, the animators know just how much is too much. In these cases, faces move like real people, they gesture like real people and they just plain move like real people. Even when they don’t need to, when they could just be in the background or out-of-focus and let up on the detail, they still keep up that level of detail and fluidity and that’s what keeps it from being distractingly fake-looking. Praise too should go to the dragons whose excellent design work means they can be imposing and dangerous one moment and cute and lovable the next without it ever seeming jarring.
Lighting is utterly gorgeous. Although there aren’t as many scenes set at night or in darkness as there were in the original film, ones that are still make excellent usage of shadows and shading. There’s a scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons in a dark cave that’s a particular showcase for the technology powering the film. It even works during the day, too; shadows cast by dragons flying overheads affect everything in its area accurately. Cinematography, meanwhile, overseen by Roger Deakins, no less, is exceptional, frequently conjuring up images of sheer beauty (the end credits run over concept art of the film and practically the only difference between them and their equivalent shots in film is that they’re hand-drawn) and swooping and diving and shaking during the action scenes like the action is happening on a real film set. Visible chroma-keying is practically non-existent even during some of busiest scenes, I think I noticed it once during a mid-battle conversation between Astrid and Hiccup that was shot in close-ups but that’s about it.
Point is, if you’re looking for an animated film to absolutely blow you away visually, stop looking. This is it. I was astounded at this film’s visuals and you may notice that I am not easily impressed with these things.
Meanwhile, there are several excellent individual scenes worthy of note. Obviously, thanks to the animation, there’s pretty much any time any character mounts a dragon and the pair go tearing through the sky, but there are more specific instances. The aforementioned scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons leads into the reveal of his mother and even though the reveal bit itself has been seared into my brain permanently thanks to trailer overexposure these past six months, the scene still had genuine emotional impact. Although their relationship is barely touched on, there’s a very naturalistic and cute scene with Astrid and Hiccup early on. The reunion between Stoick and Valka (the name of Hiccup’s mother) is sweetly tender, as is a duet between the two later on. The first of the film’s two giant battle sequences is a technical marvel and, though its emotional climax didn’t really work for me personally, it’s executed strongly enough that it will lead to wet eyes for the majority of the audience. And there’s one short little sequence in the film’s finale that goes back to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship (which is put on the backburner for most of the film, more on that in a second) that legitimately affected me, though that may be due to my being a dog owner. These are the film’s high points, when everything is in perfect sync and operating at full power, and they tease towards an excellent film.
And I know that sounds like an excellent segway into a “but…” but I need to single out Jay Baruchel’s voice work, real quick. He wasn’t bad in the original film, far from it, but hearing his voice come out of the body of a 14 year-old was… jarring. I get the idea it was going for, but it didn’t really work. Now, though, Hiccup is 20 and Baruchel’s voice is practically perfect for the man. Of course, if that were all it were good for, I wouldn’t be singling it out. He is fantastic in this. Genuinely fantastic. He nails practically every single line, getting the right cadence for the situation and conveying Hiccup’s feelings expertly; there’s a scene during the film’s emotional high point where, again whilst it didn’t quite work for me, I realised exactly how powerful it’s supposed to be thanks to his subtly distraught line delivery. He’s so good that it’s even more jarring when he over-eggs the film’s final narration just a little bit too much cos he’s fantastic, otherwise.
OK, now it’s time for the “but…” See, despite the beautiful animation, Jay Baruchel’s phenomenal voice work and those excellent individual scenes, the film still doesn’t work as a whole. Some of those reasons are easy for me to explain, some aren’t at all. Although it doesn’t have the pacing issues the first film did (which, for me anyway, dragged in spots even though it only lasted 98 minutes), How To Train Your Dragon 2 still has a large amount of dead weight and a lack of true narrative focus. For example, remember the other dragon academy kids from the first film? They’re back and they still do pretty much nothing except provide occasional bursts of comic relief and be another recognisable face in the battle scenes. The film teases having a subplot for them, involving two of the guys competing for a very uninterested girl’s affections, but it never amounts to anything more than tossed-off comic relief. So the kids show up to get kidnapped at one point and that’s about it.
More problematic is the lack of a true emotional core to the film. HHTYD2 has the mother plot and the Drago plot and it wants to do both. It really wants to do both. The problem is that both plots, theoretically, have enough ideas and themes in them to sustain an entire film by themselves. The mother one has parental abandonment, couple reunion, re-integrations into society, mother-son bonds and the question of whether people really can change; the Drago plot has dragon hierarchies, militarisation of dragons, noble intentions corrupted by power, tragedy, indiscriminate mass-murder by the heroes (are you seriously going to try and argue that all of those random human mooks in the battle scenes teleported away before death or something) and the opportunity for a morally murky villain. Unfortunately, the film wants to do both and neither side has themes that cross over enough to allow either side to be developed fully. So, consequently, neither side gets explored enough to have their full impact and both sides end up relatively wasted in some way.
Drago, for example, doesn’t appear on screen for the entire first half of the movie and is barely on screen even after his appearance. He’s first mentioned at the 20 minute mark but despite constant invocations of dread by the characters of the film, he doesn’t actually do anything until a good hour in, like he’s just waiting for the mother stuff to finish so his plot can start. His backstory gets a dramatic reveal and teases motivations that could lead to a morally tricky conflict, but it’s almost immediately discredited as Hiccup all but shouts, “You’re a bad guy,” and Drago basically smirks and admits, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dick and didn’t mean a word of what I said.” He’s not even an imposing or menacing villain, he’s just boring and one-dimensional instead of mysterious or threatening. It’s a waste of a villain. Also, yes, the fact that the villain is the sole character of colour shown in this world in-film is a very unfortunate implication that I can’t believe an entire company, in a post-The Last Airbender world, allowed to pass through unflagged by somebody.
Valka, meanwhile, does get a lot of time fostered on her but she affects practically zero percent of the plot. Because the plot ends up revolving around Drago and, despite being a master dragon wrangler/tamer/rider, when it’s time for battle to start, she is knocked on her arse and shoved off to the side-lines for Hiccup to resolve everything. Snippiness aside, despite taking up pretty much the entire middle act, Valka contributes nothing of real value to the film besides a pep talk to Hiccup and to exist for something that just clicked in my head but I can’t talk about because spoilers. It’s like the Astrid stuff from the first How To Train Your Dragon, which similarly showcased tonnes of narrative potential only to be totally squandered by the film’s decision to just turn that character into a satellite that orbits around Hiccup accomplishing nothing by themselves (incidentally, Astrid’s role in this film consists of: couple talk, pep talk, getting kidnapped, being rescued by someone else, face to follow during battles, Big Damn Kiss). It’s extra-infuriating here because the film spends so long on Valka and her character arc, even attempting to make her the emotional centre, until it just flings it all away for the last half hour…
…wherein we return to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship to raise stakes for the finale. It should be a huge emotional gut-punch, but it doesn’t work because the film kind of forgets how important the two of them are together once Valka hits the scene. It relies on prior attachment for all of its emotional impact, so HHTYD2’s near-total dismissal of just how important the pair’s bond is until it’s relevant to the plot kills most of the possible impact. It feels cheap, especially since the whole situation gets wrapped up about 10 to 15 minutes after it’s brought up, so there’s no real chance to let it sting or for the themes it wants to touch on to resonate.
But more than that, something has plagued both How To Train Your Dragons for me. Like, both films have clearly definable issues but there’s also something… more. Something else that I can’t quite explain. They’re missing… “something,” a certain feeling, a certain magic, the kind of magic that can overcome issues like poor story structure and a lack of focus. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s there in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s there in The Lego Movie, it’s there in Mulan, it’s most definitely there in ParaNorman, but it’s missing from here. It’s especially baffling because Dean DeBlois (who directed both installments) and Chris Sanders (who only did the first one) are previous of Lilo & Stitch, which had the unexplainable yet tangible quality in spades. It’s not heart, because both films do have it and both films are clearly made with a lot of love, it’s something else and it’s the lack of that “something” that keeps the whole enterprise from soaring as high as it should do and as it keeps teasing it can. Better film critics or film scholars than I will likely come up with actual theories or explanations that may hit the nail on the head for me, be they explaining that missing “something” or finding an actual problem that I couldn’t explain, but all I can do is tell you what I know and what I know is that something I don’t know is missing from or spoiling this movie and that keeps it from being excellent despite my not knowing exactly what it is… if you get what on earth I mean.
How To Train Your Dragon 2, then, really is its parent film’s sequel. It has most of the exact same strengths, most of the exact same highpoints, most of the exact same flaws and that exact same “something” that dragged down the first film. If I had seen this in 2010, from the animation company that just two months later was going to deploy yet another Shrek sequel on this undeserving planet, I would have given it a gold star sticker of improvement and given it a total pass in the hopes that DreamWorks can do better. Unfortunately, this is 2014 and DreamWorks have shown that it can do better, but it’s made a movie with the exact same strengths and weaknesses as that film from 2010, so I have to evaluate it as I see it. And I see HTTYD2 as a good movie that I very much enjoyed held back poor plotting, inconsistent focus in both the narrative and the emotional core, and suffering from a certain “something”. Gorgeous visuals, though.
Of course, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you may want to ignore all of this and go and see it anyway. In fact, no, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you should ignore all of this and see the film immediately. It really is exactly like the first one, so I see absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t love this. I can only tell you how I felt and I didn’t love the first one, so… yeah.