Where the first How to Train Your Dragon started in a time of war, Dean Dubois’ newly released sequel starts in a time of peace. Five years later the vikings of Berk and the dragons are living in Dinotopia-esque harmony. Hiccup, now 20 years old, is supposed to be preparing to become the chief, but prefers to spend his days flying around with dragon buddy Toothless, exploring the unmapped seas. Of course, evil encroaches on this peaceful fantasy world in a Legend of Zelda-type manner. But while there’s definitely some Legend of Zelda in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (some Wind Waker exploration, some Skyward Sword flying thrills), the most accurate video game metaphor for the experience of the Dreamworks Animation movie series would be the Portal games. The first came with no expectations and surprised everyone by taking a simple concept and nailing the execution on every level. The sequel comes with high expectations and responds by going bigger, and if not necessarily getting better keeping its quality up to a similarly high standard and, refusing to rest on its laurels, offering up some genuine surprises.
It’s no shock if you’ve seen the trailers that Hiccup’s long lost mom comes in about a third of the way through the movie. What is surprising is where they go with it. A scenario that could easily have overwhelmed the movie with overwrought soap opera is handled with a lot of care and a sense of real familial love. Not since The Incredibles has there been an animated family I’ve cared so much for. Not since ever has an animated movie focused on a mother-son relationship so well (I guess you can say Bambi, though it’s kind of soured in light of the legacy of Disney dead moms it started).
One area where the movie undeniably improves on the first one is visually. The first movie already looked good thanks to Chris Sanders’ character designs, the adorable character animation of Toothless, and the stunning flight scenes, but the sequel expands on all that with more detailed settings and a lot more action. And what action it is! There’s a battle scene midway through the movie that could serve as the finale in any lesser action movie, and yet the movie keeps finding ways to top itself. As far as monster fights go, it’s so much more epic and entertaining than the new Godzilla it’s ridiculous, and it even tops Pacific Rim thanks to the freedom of animation and the grounding of compelling character drama. It’s sure to look great however you see it, but the thrill of flying and the intelligent use of foreground and background makes the 3D, if not absolutely necessary a la Gravity, still worth it. Even more than the first movie, this is a big break from Dreamworks’ typical comedies into serious action-adventure territory, but it’s still got plenty of laughs thanks to both visual slapstick and clever character-driven dialogue from the same talented voice cast as the first.
The new villain, Drago Bludvist, is a relative weak spot, but he’s far from a waste. Unlike whatshisname in Thor 2, the disappointing villain in Hollywood’s other big Norse-themed sequel, there is a real sense he has a heavy history to go with his power, even though it remains mysterious. The mysteriousness works for the plot but a greater sense of where he comes from would perhaps ease the awkward ambiguity of how he’s “othered” along ethnic lines (from a “foreign” land, dark-ish skin, dreadlocks, Djimon Hounsou’s voice) without being of any distinguishable ethnicity, as if the filmmakers were trying to still play off racist tropes while trying not to be racist.
Ultimately the success of How to Train Your Dragon 2, as with the first movie, is how refreshing Hiccup is as a hero. He’s a thinker, a diplomat, he’s not afraid to show his emotions and he tries not to fight unless necessary, willing to talk out problems with even the most horrible of foes. In a series with plenty of strong women and, as of this sequel, an out gay character, it’s Hiccup’s challenges to traditional masculinity that remain its strongest progressive element. As he convincing grows into an adult and a leader, he continues to bring the society around him towards a brighter future. For the generation of young boys growing up with Hiccup as a hero, I see their future being bright indeed.