How to Train Your Dragon 2

 

How to Drain Your Passion

 

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

How to Train Your Dragon is a film that doesn’t need a sequel. It’s a complete story and ties things off nicely. However, the first film was a huge hit, so money again wins over artistry. That’s not to say a sequel couldn’t work, it’s just unnecessary. I was on the fence until I saw this awesome teaser:

Just watch it. It sold me on everything. It captures the joy of the first film whilst promising new things like Hiccup’s wing suit and best of all, it gives fuck all away. So of course they ruined it by releasing a second trailer that gives away 90% of the entire film. Luckily, I managed to avoid seeing it after being forewarned, but damn. You’re making me not want to watch trailers, you film douchebags. That’s the opposite of what you want. Anyway, back to the review.

“You have the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon.”

HTTYD 2 picks up five years after the original. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a 20 year old man, struggling to balance his duty to his village and his father with exploring the wider world with his trusty dragon pal Toothless. It soon transpires that an old enemy of Stoick’s (Gerard Butler) a villain named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) is alive and hellbent on amassing a dragon army to take over the world. Things get more complicated for Hiccup when the mysterious dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) shows up and kidnaps him. The basic story is decent enough to justify its own existence. In a genre where keeping the status quo when it comes to sequels is the norm, the decision to age the characters is a smart one.  It gives the characters new purposes and ensures that the film isn’t just a retread of what’s come before, at least in theory. The cast are good, but additions like Jon Snuh actor Kit Harington and the aforementioned Cate Blanchett and Djimon Hounsou  aren’t given particularly meaty roles to really shine. On that topic, fuck knows what is up with Blanchett’s accent in this. It veers from Scottish to European to an accent never before heard by human ears.

On the surface, everything is fine. Hiccup is still a good lead, the friendship between him and Toothless still charming and the flight sequences still great. It totally looks the part as well with beautiful, colourful vistas and fluid animation. However, I found myself really underwhelmed by it all. Look, I know I’m in the minority here as this thing has had crazy praise laid at its doorstep by critics, but when they’re saying it’s better than the original, it makes my head hurt. It’s a clusterfuck of ideas and scenarios, with the film feeling aimless at times, not sure how to stitch together scenes of Toothless being adorable. Despite having the leg up on who these characters were, I found them to be unengaging and at times, boring. One of the main reasons is how generic it all feels in comparison to the first. The main villain, Drago Bludvist, is a cookie cutter baddie with no real goal. In my little blurb above, I was trying to remember what his ultimate plan was and couldn’t- eventually settling for a vague “world domination” thing. He does get more interesting later on, but like Zod in Man of Steel, the revelation and backstory come way too late in the film and just before the climactic fight, a part where you specifically don’t want to sympathise with the bad guy because he’s about to get stomped by the hero. There are too many moments that just don’t ring true for it to be a minor problem. For all the lovely colours and dragon antics on screen, the kids sitting in the row in front of me seemed bored, with one of them resorting to punching his brother in the face with a popcorn box over his fist. They weren’t laughing much either. Food for thought. Also, that whole teaser sequence does appear in the film, but they’ve slapped some sugary pop song over the top, robbing the scene of most of its majesty. Fucking sigh.

It’s not bad by any standard. A lot of the film is quite good with some neat ideas played with. There’s one scene for instance where Hiccup, Stoick and the Vikings have to protect a dragon nest and its alpha dragon from attackers, the exact opposite of the climax of the first film. That’s a nice touch and there are several others like it scattered throughout the film. It’s just not enough. I felt disconnected from the film, like I was watching snatches of it through a neighbour’s window. Despite now being an adult, Hiccup’s motivation is pretty much the same as in the first one- change how people think about dragons and to become a responsible adult. He doesn’t want to be who his father wants him to be. Same exact skeleton of a conceit with different bells and whistles. The motivations for all the characters are fairly weak and ill-defined. As a result, don’t be surprised if you don’t care about anything happening on screen.

“C’mon, bud. There’s a whole other world of dragons out there!”

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a slide in quality. It still has clever ideas, wit and charm, but it’s harder to recognise them amongst the stilted storytelling and often painfully unambitious bits. The trailers for the god-awful looking genre stablemates Planes 2 and The Nut Job before the screening reaffirmed that the HTTYD franchise is still leagues above the pandering bullshit they’re clogging up multiplexes with, but judged by its own standards it’s a step back, not a stride forward. The worst thing is that I wanted to be caught up in it all and I was left on the sidelines. I’m legitimately disappointed. Still, there are plenty of worse ways to spend 90 minutes. Plenty of better ways too though *wink*. Seriously though- ladies, hit me up.

How to Train Your Dragon

 

Toothless is more

 

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

OK, deep breath. I kinda thought HTTYD was average as all hell when it first came out. In fact, I wrote a review four years ago saying as much. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, it’s just for the longest time I couldn’t see anything more in it other than a distracting electric babysitter for spoiled little shits. However, time has softened my judgement and when I decided to rewatch the original in preparation for the sequel and found myself reacting to it very differently. I’m a proud man, but willing to admit I was wrong. It’s chuffing brilliant. Sorry it took me so long to join the party.

“Either we finish them, or they’ll finish us! It’s the only way we’ll be rid of them! If we find the nest and destroy it, the dragons will leave.”

How to Train Your Dragon follows awkward Viking teenager Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). As the son of the aptly named chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) there are a great many things expected of him, although the town regards him as a screw up. They live in the village of Berk, a very old place with suspiciously new buildings. Turns out Berk is a hostile dragon hotspot and is regularly raided by the fire-breathing monsters. After he wings an attacking dragon with a net and grounds it, Hiccup names it “Toothless” and starts bonding with the creature and starts to question whether dragons are the fearsome killers they’re made out to be.  It’s a simple tale, but it’s incredibly well executed. Dreamworks’ film before this point tended to feel like snarky joke-delivery vehicles, but HTTYD is a “proper” film. It’s beautifully animated and it has a really appealing art style, similar to Asterix, with the big, burly Vikings clearly attending the same buffets as Obelix. It shares a lot of Disney DNA, especially with Lilo & Stitch, which also has a human/creature relationship at the centre of things. Jay Baruchel’s reedy, perpetually breaking Hiccup voice is perfect for the part. Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson Scot things up a bit as Stoick and Gobber, although the mystery of how Vikings ended up with Scottish accents when the kids speak with American tones is never solved. The voice cast is decent with several reliable comedians like Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig popping up.

The film is charming. It focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. The slow process of two fearful beings slowly trusting each other and liking each other is seriously well done. When Hiccup does finally fly with Toothless, it’s exhilarating. The music, the gorgeous visuals and everything else blend together into something genuinely special. The film isn’t all whiz-bang dragon flying though. It has time for human characters too. Stoick’s relationship with Hiccup is relatable and touching. They may be talking about dragon slaying, but the emotions are believable. Same with Astrid (America Ferrera). The film pays great attention to giving her an actual personality, rather than just being the stock “love interest”. There are some really decent messages contained within. Be kind to animals, brain over brawn etc. Crucially, it never feels preachy. The motivations, theming and all that good behind the scenes stuff is top quality too. I won’t say that the film deals with surprisingly dark stuff as most kids’ film worth anything do, but it handles mature ideas with a deft touch and it makes the film all the more enjoyable to know that the film isn’t just content with being flashy colours and shapes to sedate its young audience.

There’s been a lot of criticism over the idea that HTTYD is derivative. Yeah, I’m sure you could find countless films that share the same basic story. However, HTTYD doesn’t feel like a cynical, rip-off cashgrab. It takes basic storytelling elements and runs with them, giving us a unique setting and colourful characters. Here’s the thing. It’s one thing to stuff your film with a bunch of clichés, but it’s a completely different thing to understand their purpose and function. HTTYD knows these things and uses them to create a solid framework. Most of the time it’s when tropes are handled badly that it really becomes noticeable and you can see the stitches barely holding all of it together. The script is slick and efficient. Notice I didn’t say “great” because the dialogue is the only real thing that needs to be punched up. It’s not as funny as it should be and the lack of jokes outside of dumb kid pandering stuff is noticeable, but not a problem when taken as a whole.

“This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. “

How to Train Your Dragon is fantastic. I can see why it’s resonated with so many people. Strong characterisation, a lovely central friendship between a boy and his dragon and some thrilling flight scenes coupled with an epic scale finale make it a modern classic of the genre. It’s a joy.