Since the release of Antz back in 1998, Dreamworks Animation has had a fairly spotty track record. For every charming winner like Shrek or Chicken Run, there's been an ungainly clunker like Shark Tale or Monsters vs. Aliens. For many (myself included), 2010's How to Train Your Dragon stands apart from the bulk of Dreamworks' output, as it tossed aside snark and incessant pop culture references in favor of telling a solid, dramatically compelling story with well-defined characters and dazzling action setpieces. At a glance, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has the feel of a worthy follow-up: the animation is simply gorgeous, the creature design is terrific, John Powell's music is as thrilling as ever, the voice work is exceptional and there are some surprisingly powerful dramatic moments scattered throughout the film. Look a little closer, however, and you'll discover a great big mess.
We return to the land of Berk five years after the events of the first film. At long last, humans and dragons are living together in peace, as evidenced by the fact that there's now a sport called "Dragon Racing" (somehow much more complicated than it sounds). Berk's leader Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, Rocknrolla) has determined that it's time to start grooming his son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, Goon) to take over. Alas, Hiccup just doesn't have much interest in leadership - he simply wants to keep exploring the skies with his friendly dragon Toothless. The lad's curious spirit has led him to some surprising discoveries over the years, and it continues to do so in this tale.
First, Hiccup and Toothless discover a group of irritable humans who are capturing dragons under the orders of the ferocious Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator). Hiccup thinks that he could put an end to this practice if given an opportunity to talk to Drago in person, but Stoick knows that Drago is a man too violent and cruel to be reasoned with. Secondly, Hiccup discovers that his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett, The Missing) is still alive, and has spent the past twenty years running a one-person dragon humane society.
How to Train Your Dragon benefitted from a relatively lean, focused story, but the sequel makes the all-too-common mistake of attempting to stuff too much material into the mix. In addition to the central conflict between Drago and the people/dragons of Berk, you have Hiccup's family drama, Hiccup's attempt to determine whether or not he's willing to become a leader, Hiccup's friendship/romance with the cheerful Astrid (America Ferrera, Ugly Betty), a goofy secondary romance playing out between the supporting characters, the inner turmoil of a brooding dragon trapper (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones) and a whole bunch of new dragon mythology to deal with. The manner in which the film shuffles between all of this stuff is fairly clumsy, which is a shame given how many really strong individual moments are tossed out over the course of the flick's 102-minute running time.
For instance, I really liked a fair portion of the film's midsection, as it focuses on the introduction of Hiccup's mother and the tentative reunion of his parents. The scenes between Stoick and Valka are genuinely lovely; infused with a maturity and raw emotion reminiscent of Pixar's better efforts. However, once that subplot gets going, it just sort of fizzles out. The story of Valka's return more or less dominates the second act, but once the family reunion takes place the film doesn't do anything interesting with her. Instead, it shifts the focus to the conflict with the villain, but that fizzles out, too. After receiving a ton of build-up, Drago is ultimately revealed as a boring character from the Generic Villain Discount Rack. He wants to capture dragons because... well, he wants power, I guess. The point is he seems creepy and needs to be defeated. (Also: not to start a protest rally or anything, but why is the only dark-skinned character in the whole How to Train Your Dragon universe the bad guy?)
The dragon stuff disappoints this time around, too. Yes, the flying sequences are as thrilling as ever (I still remember the joy of seeing the big flight sequence in the first film - one of the most dazzling 3D scenes I've witnessed to date), but the creatures themselves are presented inconsistently. One of the strongest elements of the first film was the manner in which is examined the genuine bond and infinite gulf between humans and animals. This time, the dragons - Toothless in particular - are a bit too "human." There are numerous little moments in which the dragons do cutesy things that feel oddly phony. It would work just fine if these were typical talking cartoon characters, but they weren't presented this way the first time around. Even worse is the presentation of the two gigantic alpha dragons (a good one who stays with Valka, and a bad one who stays with Drago). According to the rules of the film, all dragons are essentially under the command of the alpha. They seem to follow the good alpha out of respect, but when the bad alpha takes over, the dragons (Toothless included) become hypnotized and only follow him because he has the powers of Gorilla Grodd. Then, Hiccup has to try to free Toothless from the grip of the alpha's power, because true love conquers all or something like that (cue flashback to the end of Frozen).
It may sound like I'm being needlessly tough on the movie - I know, I know, "it's just a kid's movie!" - but considering how well the first film handled so many of the things this one fumbles, it's hard not to be disappointed. There are admittedly a lot of compelling individual pieces here. You could edit together a half-hour or so of pretty terrific self-contained scenes and convince somebody that Dreamworks had made a real gem. On a technical level, it's as slick and assured as any animated film I've seen. Alas, too much of it feels messy and hollow. I'm not giving up on this franchise just yet, but this is a considerable step backwards.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2014