I saw How to Train Your Dragon a couple of years after most people and while I liked it at the time, I wasn’t quite as enamored with it as seemingly everyone else on the face of the planet. Sure, it was cute and funny and enjoyable — not to mention absolutely gorgeous — but it had a lot of problems that kept me from truly falling in love. I re-watched it prior to seeing the sequel, and while I felt those problems persisted, their impact was lessened. I was more drawn by the humor, enjoyed the simple story more, and so on. Perhaps I’ve softened with time. I mention this because I feel it’s important to mention the context in which this review originates.
Taking place five years after the first film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 follows Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless, exploring the vast world after having made peace with all the dragons of the region. He is being pressed by his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) to become the new chief, he’s still with his now-girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), and his village now entertains itself with dragon races.
Without spoiling too much, a villain soon emerges who wants to capture all the dragons, raise an army, and take over the world. With the help of a vigilante dragon tamer (Cate Blanchett), and the rest of the villagers, Hiccup will have to face this new foe, which means all-out dragon warfare, the introduction of new types of dragons, and emotions. Yes, emotions. This film will bring them out in you. It’s so much more powerful than the original film that you wonder if they were made by the same people (they were).
You would need to discuss spoilers in order to explain why specific scenes are so powerful. I won’t do that. What I will say is that a full spectrum of emotions is felt. You don’t get too negative — this is a children’s movie, primarily, after all — but it’s also not all sweetness and rainbows. There’s variety, and you’re never going to be sure what’s coming around the corner.
With that said, there are only a few stretches of genuine suspense when it comes to the action scenes. You’ll notice them. The score — tremendous score by John Powell, by the way — gets tense and the action on-screen starts to seem like there’s danger … and then it all gets solved, the music gets more cheerful, and there’s no risk anymore. There was only one point in the film where a solution to a problem wasn’t easy to figure out. That’s not to say the action scenes aren’t enjoyable or spectacular to watch; they’re just not terribly suspenseful.
If there’s one area at which How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not terribly successful, it’s at telling a strong story. It has good characters who are involved in often-great individual scenes, but as a complete narrative? It’s not particularly good. There’s basically no story at all after the first half, and even before that the story is a secondary focus at best. You’ll probably be too distracted by the pretty animation, well-developed characters, and fun action to care, but step back and think about the overall plot of the film and you’ll see that it’s pretty lacking.
What isn’t lacking is the voice work provided by some pretty established names, some of whom you won’t even recognize here. You can tell it’s Jay Baruchel behind the lead, hiccup, but I couldn’t really recognize the likes of Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Djimon Hounsou, or Kit Harington. Nobody’s phoning it in, and the script is self-contained and refuses to take a “meta” approach. There are no in-jokes or references to the actors voicing the characters to distract you from this film.
The film is gorgeous. It looks better than the first film, which also looked incredible. There’s one area the characters head to this time that was seemingly designed just to make your jaw drop (or remind you of Avatar). If you see this film and hate everything else, it’s going to be tough for you to be down on the animation quality. This is a bigger and better movie in terms of the animation — even though the budget was lower than that of the original.
How to Train Your Dragon worked really well for children, but I’m not as sure how well it would play for adults. How to Drain Your Dragon 2 might play just as well for both age groups. This one is more mature and has some scenes that will actually work better for adults; they’ll have the experience necessary to truly understand what makes them powerful. Kids will like it, no doubt, but like the best animated movies, the adults who get dragged by their child to the cinema will come away happy, too.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a better film than its predecessor, which was also a good — if not great — film. It’s funny, charming, action-packed, a little scary, emotionally resonate, and absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. It struggles in the story department, and it’s not particularly suspenseful, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s an improvement on something that was already good, and that’s what you want out of a sequel. This is an enjoyable movie for both children and adults.