Of Family and Training Dragons

Of Family and Training Dragons June 13, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2, directed by Dean DeBlois

The first How to Train Your Dragon, which came out way back in 2010, was something of a surprise. In addition to the impressive animation and thrilling action–par for the course for these kinds of movies–it had wit, beauty, and a story with real emotional depth. Dreamworks had clearly learned something from Pixar, and the result was pure gold.

Now comes the sequel, the crucible that proves whether we have a legitimately engaging multi-episode film saga, or a franchise scraping diminishing returns out of rehashing the same two or three ingredients over and over again. This second installment is a little bit Empire Strikes Back, a tiny bit Avatar, an obligatory dash of Lord of the Rings. The ingredients are derivative, but the dish–spiced with some wit, a few moments of cool spectacle, and the enlargement of the canvas on which this story is told–is pretty tasty. The pacing is just every-so-slightly clunky, but the film is satisfying. This is Dreamworks’ best franchise.

The story follows Hiccup five years after he proved that dragons could be loved and tamed. Now his entire village has integrated with the winged lizards–although, really, they’re more like winged puppies than lizards from the way they drool, prance, lick, and gambol about. Hiccup wanders the islands with Toothless, searching for his place in the order of things, uncertain if he wants to accept the mantle of tribal leadership his father wants to pass to him. The setup feels familiar, but not repetitive; grander, but comfortingly so.

Too much plot synopsis would spoil the movie. Danger arises in the person of Drago, who wants to conquer the world, or kill all dragons, or enslave all dragons, or something. But another mysterious person waits in the wings, whose entrance into the movie–a fin slices though the clouds like the shark in Jaws before a truly bizarre appellation appears in the sky–is nicely done.  Hiccup juggles family drama with saving the world. Drago is a memorable villain who summons dragons with a bestial scream, as if talking to the dragons in their own language.

Pleasantly, Hiccup’s teenage romance with Astrid is just another relationship among many, not the focus; their affection is comfortable and relaxed, not fraught with overwrought misunderstandings; and the movie does not climax with some sudden breakthrough in love. How nice to see a movie in which romance is part of the scenery, not the main thing. The film pokes a little fun at teenage romance with another couple of characters that had my theater cackling out loud.

The movie has some nice things to say about whether or not people can change for the better. Because this is a family movie, of course the answer is yes. But because this movie has a little more maturity than most, the answer is also “sometimes not,” and “sometimes at great cost.” It takes some courage for storytellers to smuggle in those truths into what is, ostensibly, a kids movie.

The best food for thought in the film is the relationship between Hiccup and his family. He is burdened by others’ expectations of him. He wants to honor them and live up to expectations yet still find his own place in the world. I appreciated that he does not resolve the tension with a simple rebellion against family, as he would in a thousand other movies. Rather, he makes hard sacrifices to serve others–just as they make painful sacrifices to help him grow into his responsibilities.

This movie is PG, not G, and has moments of frightening peril and surprising sadness. My four-year-old daughter squirmed and clung very tightly to me at certain points, and I could hear other kids in the theater getting uncomfortable too. Stick it out; the kids loved it in the end. You might have occasion to talk with them about a few serious issues. And they’ll almost certainly be asking how long until How to Train Your Dragon 3.

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