Looking Closer at How to Train Your Dragon 2

This is the first weekend in a long time that is really a weekend for me. I can rest, read, write, walk, explore… and go to the movies.

I’m thinking about seeing How to Train Your Dragon 2.

I’m normally frustrated with Dreamworks Animation films — they’re usually obnoxious and misguided and pandering. But that film surprised me with impressive characterizations, an unexpectedly thoughtful plot, and 3D flight sequences. We watched a young Viking named Hiccup learn to consider his enemies with thoughtfulness instead of knee-jerk violence. And Hiccup’s father Stoick, a gargantuan Viking warrior, made a slow journey to appreciating his not-so-warlike son. Frankly, I got my money’s worth just admiring the sight of Stoick’s magnificent red thicket of a beard.

So I’m asking (or rather, reading) some accomplished film critics who appreciate animation and films that have been crafted for families: Steven Greydanus, Scott Renshaw, Tasha Robinson, and Susan Wloszczyna.

Scott Renshaw at City Weekly, is How to Train Your Dragon 2 just a bloated “Round Two”? Or is it really about something?

Renshaw:

… [It feels like it’s about something kind of daring for an animated feature: the idea that there are different ways to be a leader. The clash between Hiccup and Drago becomes a clash between how one responds to being damaged, and whether the exercise of power is predicated on fear or respect. This is “teachable moment” cinema for young viewers that doesn’t push too hard on how teachable its moments are. And it matters that in this world, some choices—even heroic ones—have permanent, not always happy consequences.

Perhaps there’s no way to avoid some of the formulaic need for huge set pieces in these family blockbusters, and it’s a bit disappointing that a strong character like Astrid (America Ferrera) becomes kind of an afterthought here. Yet it’s always going to be a pleasant surprise when an institution like DreamWorks Animation decides that even after 20 years, playing it safe isn’t the only option, and that there’s still room to grow.

Overstreet:

What I remember about How to Train Your Dragon was how much I preferred it to Avatar in everything from character development, world-building, flying sequences, adventure, and wonder.

Susan Wloszczyna at RogerEbert.com — Does it recapture any of that?

Wloszczyna:

What the sea was to Finding Nemo, the sky is to How to Train Your Dragon 2—a boundary-free backdrop of natural beauty that allows the audience to experience first-hand the wonders down below or up above in an immersive way that only the best in 3-D animation can do.

But ... what got to me was my moist-eyed appreciation of a long-ago-married couple, suddenly reunited after 20 years apart, who are surprised to discover that the embers of love still burn inside of them. How many fast-paced blockbusters actually bother to find room for a breather that is touching, tender and real—especially in an entertainment largely aimed at kids[?] Add to that an impassioned ballad, “For the Dancing and the Dreaming,” that acts as a renewal of vows and it just might be one of the summer’s best romantic movie moments.

Oddly enough, the battles with evil forces who wish to enslave the dragons into an army are the least interesting portion of the film.

Overstreet:

The battles with evil forces — what most moviegoers accept as the raison d’etre for adventure movies. I’ve written much — probably far too much — about my frustration with simple good guy versus bad guy narratives. Does this film depend on the overthrow of a central villain for the sake of satisfying audiences?

Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve, what you do think? Is there anything particularly interesting about the conflict with Drago, the villain played by Djimon Hounsou?

Robinson:

The odd but pleasant thing about Dragon 2 is the degree to which Drago feels like a third-act afterthought, mostly a convenient excuse for climactic battles and some shouted philosophical debates about how humanity and dragon-ity should relate to each other. Drago seems heavily modeled after Mulan villain Shan Yu, in physical design, movement, and menace. (DeBlois, not incidentally, was one of Mulan’s head writers.) But Drago also resembles Shan Yu in the way he spends most of the film as a looming, abstract threat rather than a character. He’s Hiccup’s conceptual evil opposite—right down to a late-film reveal of a crucial detail they have in common—but for all his villain monologuing and considerable power, he’s still more abstract philosophical yang to Hiccup’s yin than he is a fully fleshed-out antagonist.

Overstreet:

How about you, Steven Greydanus at The National Catholic Register? Most reviewers seem very happy with the animation, the humor, the action… but I turn to you for insight into storytelling. Does this have the strength of the original?

Greydanus:

… [N]one of the established characters are obliged to change in any fundamental way. As with the Ice Age sequels, situations may change and characters may come and go, but the central characters and relationships forged in the first film have become static. Is everyone else as tired as I am of referring to the Toy Story sequels for how to do this right?

Overstreet:

But even so, you’re not standing at the door trying to make moviegoers change their minds, right?

Greydanus:

Of course the animation is gorgeous. That’s something. The flight sequences are as exhilarating as in the original, and far more elaborate. … Comic relief from the supporting cast, including Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig, isn’t great, but it’s good enough. Like the film as a whole: I wouldn’t call it good, but it’s good enough. I saw it with most of our kids, and it was a pleasant outing.

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P.S.

More reviews and responses:

Down in Nashville, Sarah Partain reports that her husband and son — Nathan and Amos — saw the movie today.

Nathan loved it, says Sarah. “He said it was beautiful to watch. (Both Dragon movies are his favorite in 3D.) It’s a very satisfying and solid sequel.” Eight-year-old Amos, his mother reports, “really liked it” and “was glad that certain parts of the story happened.” Also, he “loved the animation and had fun seeing it in 3D. He liked many parts of the story and action.”

Well… Amos, you’ve talked me into buying a ticket!

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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.

  • Alex

    So many good reviews make me curious about it. It is impressively high on Rotten Tomatoes, even on the average rating so most critics gave it pretty high ratings. However, so was the first one and Frozen, movies that anger me precisely for being obnoxious and pandering and critically acclaimed. I felt the plot in the first Dragon movie to be quite pathetically contrived with its unnecessary drama after unnecessary drama. From early in the movie you could feel how they were forcefully setting up the father-son conflict with the only intention, not to really say something with a new perspective, but to get some required dramatic resonance with something we have seen plenty of times and have seen it done better in live-action family and teenage movies. The lost leg seems to be more of an artifice to say “we take risks” than an actual risk taken by a bigger story. Beyond all that, I was extremely frustrated by the rest of the character clichés that had either the Dreamworks formula goofiness, the fake solemn gravity that sells so well, or the animated-formula smirks and cool postures with their accompanying pandering wits (always present in Dreamworks, but also in Disney Animation, Sony, Blue Sky…). Hiccup was a decent but quite generic character and I was only impressed by the dragon, who was ultimately uneven as it was put to fit for the requirements of an animated adventure dramatic plot. For me it was definitely a step down from the riskier Lilo & Stitch.

    Maybe my frustration is worse because movies that don’t succumb to all these tactics are deemed inferior just because they aren’t perfect. I find even Monsters Universtiy and my least favorite Pixar movie Brave a lot more respectable for avoiding precisely all this that I mention. Even characters in Oscar-snubbed Monsters University that have two lines seem richer and more authentic than important side characters in the first Dragon (not to mention than almost any character in the Oscar-nominated but cringing-unbearable Croods).

    That being said, although I had initially dreaded the idea of watching this sequel, I might give it a try to see if it changes my mind about the franchise.


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