Ever since Dreamworks' new animated film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, debuted at Cannes, the praise has been almost unanimous, with many critics calling the film one of the best animated sequels ever and a step up from its predecessor. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was an impressive feature, but I really wasn't sure that a sequel was all that necessary. The original film told its story well and could have just ended the saga right there. However, the corporate leaders at Dreamworks saw a lot of potential in the franchise and decided to greenlight this far inferior sequel. I seriously do not understand all the praise for this movie. The action is breathtaking and there are genuine moments of wonder, but in a summer with so many great movies that just pop right off the screen, How to Train Your Dragon 2 just feels flat and dull. It's both too long and too rushed and the story is never compelling. Not much works in How to Train Your Dragon 2 and it's quite a shame given that the characters are still very entertaining.
The adventures of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless continue in How to Train Your Dragon 2 five years after the events of the first film. Hiccup is all grown up now and is engaged to Astrid (America Ferrera) while the town of Berk has come to embrace dragons. Meanwhile, Hiccup is off exploring, trying to find new lands with new dragons. One day, Hiccup, Astrid and a couple friends fly by a frozen base and are captured by Eret (Kit Harrington) and his men. Eret believes that they froze the base and tells them that Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) will be coming for their dragons. When Hiccup tells his father (Gerard Butler) about Bludvist, he freaks out and tries to stop Hiccup from trying to reason with him. However, Hiccup leaves anyways and ends up running into a woman named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who is actually his long-lost mother. Family drama and mass chaos ensues.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a movie where not much happens. Not much of consequence at least. Sure, there's a critical death and by the end of the film, a little bit has changed in regards to Hiccup and Toothless, but there were infinitely better ways to get to the critical points in this film. The first twenty minutes are a little slow and pretty random, jumping around with little cohesion. The film really struggles to get its feet planted, but once the exposition is done, the story that How to Train Your Dragon 2 tells is just not all that interesting.
Most of the story involving Hiccup's mother is tedious. The family drama isn't all that interesting and it takes up such a large section of the runtime that director Dean DeBlois has to rush through the rest. Now, I don't know if this film would have been much better if there were an extra ten minutes added. It's just an over-serious, melodramatic affair in general. However, the third act could definitely be ten minutes longer, which would give enough time between the big battle scenes to develop a cohesive plan and maybe even add a couple layers to the flat, bland villain. In the film, there's a massive battle and a traumatic death followed by a brief lag that lasts less than five minutes before we're whisked back to Berk for another action scene. It just moves way too fast. The pacing was off.
Humor isn't always an essential part of animated movies and I've had people argue that this wasn't meant to be a comedy, but the fact is that the movie has attempts at humor and all of those attempts fall flat. A subplot involving Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) being in love with Eren is supposed to be funny, but ends up being just flat-out embarrassing. It's not hard to get a laugh out of me, but I'll admit that I did not laugh once in this movie. Actually, that's a lie. I laughed during the unintentionally hilarious song and dance number involving Hiccup's mother and father. That was just hilarious and not in a good way.
The interesting thing with How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that it has several problems and not a single one is the main reason why I didn't like the movie. It's just lackluster across the board, except in the animation department. The animation in this film is stunningly beautiful and quite extraordinary. DeBlois also does a solid job with the action scenes and Toothless is still a fun character to watch. But beyond that, there's not much that's overwhelmingly good in this movie. There's nothing that's extremely terrible either, but just a lot that could have been done better.
The tone is a major reason why this movie is so lackluster. Animated sequels that try to go darker just do not work. Kung Fu Panda 2 was a solid outing, but not even close to its predecessor in terms of quality. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is melodramatic and over-cooked and everything is just so serious. It's almost joyless. There's a sense of wonder in some of the scenes, but most of the time, the movie is just bland and I really believe that the tone is a major factor. There's no exuberant energy to this film and it doesn't have the heart of the original. The only moving moment in the film is the result of goodwill from the first film.
The villain of this film is also a huge problem. I'm so incredibly sick of villains whose main motive is that they're just evil. Nolan did a great job with the Joker, but there have just been so many villains in recent movie history that have used the "they just want chaos" excuse as a crutch. Drago Bludvist is just evil according to Hiccup's father and I could see The Dark Knight's influence in this film. And that could have worked if DeBlois went in a completely different direction. If I was directing this film, the mother would have been scratched, Drago would be straight-up attacking Berk and Hiccup would be dealing with his new responsibility to protect the village. That would be a much better movie. It would allow for the darker story that DeBlois wanted while allowing for the supporting characters and even Hiccup to be more developed.
However, I can't say that I really hated watching How to Train Your Dragon 2. It's a disappointment for sure, but it's not an actively bad film. It's just one that could have been a lot better. Hopefully DeBlois can finish off this trilogy in style with How to Train Your Dragon 3, which has already been greenlit. I can only hope that it's a cleaner, better film than this film, which is one of the most disappointing films to be released in 2014 so far.
THE FINAL GRADE: C (6/10)