So any lingering bitching about the depth and quality of YA entertainment should probably stop now. How to Train Your Dragon 2 had a few clunky moments, but overall it was an emotionally affecting film that managed to be tough-minded without forgetting to be fun. I’m still thinking about it two days later, much the way I was still ruminating over Only Lovers Left Alive. While the first film was a sweet, solidly entertaining children’s film, the filmmakers have stepped everything up and decided to turn this into an epic sequel.
When we open, humans and dragons have been living peacefully in Berk for four years. Hiccup and Astrid are still together, (and she’s still more athletic than he is) and Snotlout and Fishlegs are both still in love with Ruffnut, who remains uninterested. Hiccup has just learned that his father, Stoick, wants him to step up and become Chief. This is well ahead of Hiccup’s schedule—he’s too busy roaming with Toothless and mapping the world around Berk to start learning how to lead his people. One such excursion leads him to discover some dragon pirates in the employ of Drago and, soon after, a half-feral dragon rights vigilante named Valka with a connection to Hiccup’s past. Drago wants to raid Berk and take their dragons.
In a normal movie, this would be the main plotline, but instead HTTYD2 commits to showing us a larger world than the first one. And so Valka takes Hiccup to a colony of dragons, where he meets new fantastic beasts, and learns more about dragon society.
The film is elegantly constructed; lines that come off as humorous or sweet during the first half of the film prove to have deeper meaning in the second half. There’s a nice, subtle running gag—when Hiccup is around other humans (especially his father) he’s twitchy, nervous, stammering, yet he visibly relaxes around dragons. He shoulders unclench, his voice lowers, he swings his legs when he walks as though he’s forgotten about his prosthetic. It’s a marvelous bit of character work, and it leads to one of my favorite scenes: Hiccup is taken inside a dragon lair, and surrounded by several dozen unfamiliar dragons. He dances for them, charming them with dragon fire, and they accept him into their home. This scene is one of the two hearts of the film, where we get to see Hiccup truly come into his own, using his talent for communication to build a bridge to a strange group of dragons. It’s beautiful and heartening to see a film whose main character doesn’t rely on super-strength, gadgets, or weaponry—he really believes that if you learn the Other’s language, you’ll be able to find understanding. One of the points of the film, as it becomes a more serious sequel, is that sometimes this belief is wrong. But it’s still worth it to make the effort.
The voice acting is once again fantastic. Jay Baruchel squeaks and rasps hilariously, but drops into his new, older register when the occasion calls for it. Gerard Butler gets to sing a love song (written by the Pogues’ Shane McGowan!) that, in my showing, earned some laughs, but eventually became sweet and wistful. Craig Ferguson remains one of my favorite people. And the new additions fit in perfectly: Cate Blanchett is fabulous as Valka, Djimon Hounsou makes Drago a great rumbling villain, and Kit Harrington is as swashbuckly as you could want as Eret.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. The flight scenes are literally breathtaking. Hiccup and Toothless’ teamwork is always delightful, but when Valka shows off her wing-walking, there were gasps of shock from many of the audience. I haven’t felt that much pure joy in a film in a long time.
That’s not the only Miyazaki homage though: more than just being a sequel to the first film, this is an heir to Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Mononoke Hime. As in that film, we have flawed, fascinating characters who represent two poles of an argument. One believes that nature must be subjugated in order for humanity to thrive, the other believes that humans must bend themselves to Nature’s will, even if it means forsaking civilization. It’s up to a third character to find a middle path, one that respects both sides.
As the first film tackled themes of independence and the often contentious love between fathers and sons, this one deals with young manhood, leadership, as well as free will and determinism. Hiccup must navigate through these two paths, and through his father’s expectations, to find his own way. And, in an unexpected twist, his adorable partner must create a path, too. While the film is about Hiccup’s growth from boy to man, it is also about Toothless’ growth from adorable sidekick to full-grown DRAGON. At the beginning of the film, Hiccup trusts completely in their partnership, but also seems to take Toothless for granted a little—as much as he talks about respecting dragons, he still seems to have an idea that they’re pets. This film, building on the dragon lore of the first one, makes it clear that they’re not. As in D&D, dragons are independent, sentient creatures, with their own culture and language. They can choose to work with humans, but they certainly don’t have to. Toward the end of the film, Toothless has to do some growing himself, and prove to Hiccup that he is an equal partner in their adventures, not just a playmate.
There has already been an interesting piece in The Dissolve about the Disappearing Strong Female Character, which uses Valka as a major example. They mention that Valka has been battling Drago for years, but suddenly she faces him and is overpowered by him immediately. She hasn’t been fighting him directly, however: her action has been a series of terrorist attacks while she’s hiding in the dragon colony. When she faces him, it is for the first time, after she’s been studying dragon culture for years, not learning hand-to-hand combat. She is clearly being brought into the film as a new mentor to Hiccup, and my guess is that she’ll continue to guide him with her dragon knowledge in the third film. It’s worth noting, as well, that Hiccup sucks at fighting Drago, too, because as I mentioned, his skills lie more in hashing problems out with a mix of intelligence and empathy than in kicking ass. Honestly, the bigger issue here is Astrid: she is very independent, and goes off on a different adventure under her own agency, but is also not quite as self-reliant as I wanted her to be, given her personality in the first film. I’m hoping that her role is larger in the next one, as presumably she and Hiccup will be taking their relationship to a new level.
This is also an unabashedly Viking film. References are made to gods and Valhalla, violence is just part of life, and, since all the main characters are about 20 now, so is sexuality. Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid is one of simple, unquestioning love, but there is also a clear undercurrent of physicality between them. Also, as the first film was completely matter-of-fact about the loss of Hiccup’s leg, so this one deals with loss and pain as a part of life. I don’t want to spoil things, but people with small humans should know that this movie gets very intense. It makes it clear that death is real, pain is real, and sometimes there are people in this world who can’t be changed by words, or love, or hope. There are also a few scenes of dragon-on-dragon violence, and some scenes of Drago’s “training” method, that are emotionally brutal but never gratuitous. There is no grimness for its own sake: its all in service of a larger story about trust and bravery. Without the darkness, the lightness wouldn’t be earned.
I saw the film on Saturday evening, and there were many small kids, plus some 20-something animation fans. There was plenty of sniffling (from both groups) at a few key points, but when the credits rolled there was a rush of spontaneous applause. (I will also warn you, future viewers: there is no stinger. This was a giant problem for those aforementioned 20-somethings, who howled “More Toothless!” with great indignation and gnashing of teeth.) If How to Train Your Dragon 2 is any indication, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders have decided to turn this series into a kid-friendly epic that will give us a whole world of new dragons, tackle deep truths about growing up, and hopefully give us more Toothless along the way.