How to Train Your Dragon 2: How to Spoil a Sequel

If Toothless could speak, he’d steal lines from The Iron Giant in this movie: “I. AM NOT. A GUN.”

This isn’t really a review of How to Train Your Dragon 2. It’s more of a sigh of disappointment.

Since even my close friends are disagreeing with me on this one, you may be happier if you stick with the reviews I shared in my previous post about this movie.

Disclaimer: As I’ve said before, I’m suffering from serious burnout when it comes to frenzied battle scenes and us-versus-them fantasy spectacle. So I went into How to Train Your Dragon 2 with some concern. I enjoyed the first film in this franchise very much, and I’d read enough high praise to hope that the sequel might be something special.

And it is, for a while.

The first half is loaded with humor, imagination, wonderful character moments, subtle humor, and some strong mythic storytelling. It kindles themes about stewardship, leadership, and other -ships.

My favorite moments in the film take place when the dragons are playing together like dogs. I’d rather watch an hour-long featurette on dragons at play than watch what the film serves up in the last half-hour.

And I agree with those who have celebrated the film’s central romance as remarkably affecting and human. The epic love story of Stoick and Valka is the stuff of a much better movie — I wanted to follow the story of their rekindled marriage for another hour.

There’s also something called The Bewilderbeast which, in its early appearances, is one of the most magnificent, mysterious, magisterial (and other modifiers beginning with “m”) creatures I have ever seen on the big screen. I was as enthralled by the sight of it as I’ve been by any of the glorious creatures in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and it heightened my sense that this movie was turning into something truly extraordinary.

But all of that gravity was, for this moviegoer, squandered as the film succumbed to its need to deliver dragon-war mayhem.

“Son, it’s a sequel. Didn’t you expect to have parental revelations?”

Yes, I’m sorry to report that Dragon 2 falls victim to two summer movie illnesses that have become epidemic.

First, it devolves into “White Hat versus Black Hat” battle scenes — which is a shame. There’s so much worthwhile storytelling happening that it doesn’t even need a villain.

Second, it develops a case of Sequel-itis: It’s bigger than the first one. Louder than the first one. It contains major revelations about the hero’s parents (which are, I admit, handled better here than usual). It is overloaded with battle scenes. It shows off increasingly uninteresting special-effects advances. And ultimately, it chooses More over Better. Action swamps story, and leaves Huge Questions unanswered.

It’s especially frustrating, after such a strong first half, that the story devolves into typical Summer Blockbuster chaos, arriving at a bone-jarring dead end with the worst rallying speech I’ve ever heard. It amounts to “Our enemies are relentless and crazy, but you know what? SO ARE WE!” Wow. Go team.

The Bewilderbeast … which actually inspires awe until it catches Godzilla fever.

Is anyone else bored sick of those Peter Jackson moments when someone walks out onto a balcony and looks down to see that a vast enemy force (the size of which the earlier scenes never even hinted was possible) has arrived and is swarming like ants on the doorstep with impossible abruptness?

My heart sank when that moment came because, well… from there on, we know just what the energy of the rest of the movie will feel like. The wonderfully unique, character-based moments of the first half of the film are pretty much finished. The film’s conclusion seems to forget that this was a film about Hiccup’s revelations about his parentage, or about what it takes to be a leader. Instead, the screen turns busy with explosions. We get another addition to the trend of Massive Monsters Smashing Each Other and Every Large Structure Around Them. And the film’s climactic moment feels like it’s been cloned straight out of The Iron Giant (or, reaching back even farther, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

One of the movie’s most breathtakingly beautiful encounters.

And it all raps up with the typical back-slapping and “Yeah, we sure showed them!”  The last minute of the film is especially misguided. The heroes seem to conclude that this is the real lesson: Whoever controls the Monsters of Mass Destruction… wins!

When the film was over, my friend Danny remarked, “Well, that’s like the official movie of the NRA.” I see what he means. The film seems to suggest that massive firepower — like the firepower of dragons — is dangerous when it’s controlled by “bad people,” but it’s just fine when it’s entrusted to the right people. But before the movie’s over, the hero delivers a speech that undermines his claims to wisdom and superiority. He says something like this: “Our enemies are crazy and relentless. But so are we! They can try, but they’ll never take away our guns dragons!”

This is not the lesson that the world needs right now.

Okay, so the dragons in this movie aren’t meant to represent guns. I know that. But the assertion that the power to unleash massive devastation is perfectly cool — and even fun to play with — if it’s in the hands of a “good person” … that’s a dubious proposition at best.

Maybe in the movies you can have whole nations of “good people” who can happily and safely live with that kind of risk. But it doesn’t seem to be working out for us here in the real world, where the people who are quickest to declare their trustworthiness often turn out to be the least trustworthy of all. One of the best things Gandalf did in The Lord of the Rings was reject the idea that destructive power is a good thing in the hands of a good man like him. When offered the ring, he rejected it. He knew that even in the hands of a good man, destructive power can still do a world of damage.

Whether or not you like my friend’s NRA reference, surely you hear the weakness in Hiccup’s concluding remarks. In his own story, the power he has actually begun to reveal is the power of love — not the power of dragons. But he doesn’t seem to understand that. Maybe we just need to wait around for him to wise up. Maybe that would be a good focus for the inevitable third movie in the series. It would certainly increase the chances of that movie being the best in the series.

 

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Cassandra Le

    I didn’t like this movie as much as the first one. The writers didn’t much explore of character’s conflict or something deeper, basically just add a cliche bad guy and whoooosh, some dragon battles! They should keep the original idea – Valka (Hiccup’s mother) as a bad guy. That is interesting. Then explore more on the conflict between mother/son, how Hiccup struggle between hating/loving her….etc. This was a letdown, a disappointment. It feels like I was rubbing in my face about how awesome and loyal dragons are! Yes, I know that since the first movie, thank you. Why don’t they have some dragons-evil moment (Such as some dragons are mistreated, and they rebel?…) I want more complexities. This is just an usual, cliche sequel. Not many movie can be like Toy Story. Sigh :(

  • Brett

    So twice now you have listened to critics, spent money and been disappointed? My irony eyebrow is raised.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Well, you never know. 9 out of 10 times, the critics I’ve learned to trust lead me to rewarding experiences. It’s always worth a try. And besides… they’re not necessarily *wrong.* Different viewers will be delighted or disturbed by different things. And I don’t regret seeing the movie. The process of watching, thinking, discussing, writing, and discussing some more… that makes something worthwhile out of the whole experience.

  • Jakeithus

    Spoiler Alert!!!

    As someone who saw and greatly enjoyed the movie, I guess I disagree with your overall conclusion. That being said, I do understand where you’re coming from in your critique, so it’s not off-base, just open for personal interpretation.

    I think the best parts of both movies have been the discovery, learning and interaction with the dragons. The 2nd half of the movie certainly goes away from this theme in favour of the large battle plot line, so it is understandable why this could be seen as taking away from the movie as a whole. I do think the conflict and more serious themes were extremely well done though, and the way it handled this was so well done I personally can’t fault it.

    I thought the movie took risks, even while being a classically heroic tale which never goes out of style. All I knew going in was that the movie took a rather dark turn in the 2nd act. This is a formula present in so many of the best heroic tales, but is minimized in many modern children’s stories out of fear that kids might not be able to cope with it (although I think most do a pretty good job). Seeing the Bewildebeast violently killed on screen, I thought we had reached the dark moment, little did I know that less than 5 minutes later the movie’s beloved heart would kill the main character’s father. It succeeded in making me tear up in the theatre, which only the best of Pixar has managed to accomplish.

    The movie handled mature themes remarkably well, from Stoics’ death, to his and Valka’s romance. The true climactic moment I think, rather than Toothless remembering Hiccup, was Toothless’ decision to challenge the Alpha head on out of his love and care for Hiccup, and as a climax worked incredibly well.

  • Aarene Storms

    I must respectfully disagree, at least in part. Not the part about the first half being better, that is totally true. And rekindling of romance was awesome, yup yup.

    But the NRA/weapons thing, I think, is the wrong metaphor here. I can see where that came from, totally. But the “weapon” in question (dragons) were shown to have intelligence, loyalty, and feeling. Even the weirdest gun nut does not believe a beloved handgun will ultimately overcome the need to fire if pointed at the wrong person. Indeed, that may be the ultimate weakness of mechanical weapons: lack of loyalty.

    When watching the first Dragon movie, my family remarked repeatedly, “That’s exactly what your horse does!” and “” You do the very same thing when Fiddle is being terrible!” It is, in fact, the reason that Fiddle’s name changed from “Hellbitch” to “Dragon.” She was, at the outset, an awful creature: angry, destructive, dangerous. And…misunderstood. The metaphor was perfect. And, although I haven’t fashioned her a replacement tail, we’ve both undergone surgical adjustments that make flying so much better now. We have both significantly changed through our relationship. And THAT is what the first movie was about: changing something dangerous into something beloved, and improving the world thereby.

    The second movie picks up where the going gets harder.

    The first part of a relationship is easy, compared to the middle bit. Things don’t just get harder, they get more complicated. IRL, some people turn at this stage to dominate/obey. I see it with the parents of teenagers really often. And with married people, and with professionals trying to move up professionally. But our movie heros never go there. Hiccup’s parents reveal that they tried that and it didn’t work. The villain makes it work for a while, but it cannot last.

    The lasting relationships, the strong and heroic ones that as story listeners we count on to Save The Day and Bring Us Safely Home Again, those are built on loyalty, and trust. You don’t get that stuff from a gun, and if you did it would make a stupid story because I wouldn’t believe it.

    Now, if they can move these themes forward into Movie #3 I will be very impressed. There are a few threads dangling invitingly there. Plus: flying dragons. I love that stuff.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      “But the NRA/weapons thing, I think, is the wrong metaphor here.”

      You know, Aarene, you’re right. I love all of the stuff that involves relationships in the first film and in the first half of the second. I don’t see the dragons as an equivalent for guns. I just felt a sort of NRA zeal in the boastful speech that Hiccup delivers at the end. Instead of pointing to substantial differences between his people and Drago’s, he could only come up with “He’s crazy and relentless, but you know what? So are we!” That sounds more like the bravado of a video game avatar than the wisdom of a leader who has learned from his mistakes… nor does it sound like the character who survived by leaning on empathy and loyalty and love.

      That climactic moment of “Toothless, it’s me!” just fell flat for me. Maybe because I’ve seen it done better before (The Iron Giant, Temple of Doom).

      • Aarene Storms

        You’re right of course.

        They could have made the “fight of trust against instinct” part much stronger. Truthfully, that’s a fight the Dragon and I have been having recently (frequent bear sightings on the trail=good trust training exercises).

        I wanted that reunion dance and song to keep going and going….


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