How To Train Your Dragon 2, for what it’s worth, is solid family fun. It’s the kind of kids’ movie that washes away with stunning visuals and sharp animation, not entirely concerned with its plot or its characters, both of whom get left behind rather rudely. I say it is a kids’ movie because, much more so than the first How To Train Your Dragon, it is simple, easy and clean. It seems built for children ages 10 and down.
This I find disappointing, because I quite enjoyed the first one, what with its carefree blend of Scottish and American accents in a traditional Viking village, and the sheer array of dragons the movie’s design team brought to the table. It was a smorgasbord of sharp teeth and colourful scales. Its story too was simplistic, but it compensated with its engaging characters who, at the ages of 15, appealed most to the younger viewers but resonated more freely with the adults.
In this second film, all the young kids have grown up to look like the Hollywood action stars they were born to be. We still have Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the plucky hero. His hair, scruffy before, is even scruffier now, which usually means he is handsome. He’s even nurturing the action man stubble across his square jaw. The cute girl Astrid (America Ferrera) in the first film is slender and womanly now; her bangs replaced by flowing blonde streaks. She is engaged to Hiccup, who is next in line to be chief of his village Berk. Of course, he doesn’t want to be chief. He wants to fly across his land on his trusty dragon pet Toothless and discover new places, intricately mapped out and documented in a notebook he keeps in that sacred cartoon place: The invisible pouch under his shirt.
On one of his quests he stumbles upon a posse of dragon trappers, who pay tribute to a madman named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a sort of Cortés of the Viking world whose one and only goal is the collection and destruction of dragons. It takes a dragon to kill a dragon, he says prophetically. Clearly he hasn’t seen Dragonheart, but then Dragonheart never had a dragon the size of Godzilla’s obese cousin.
Drago is How To Train Your Dragon 2’s Achilles heel. As animated villains go, he is perhaps the flattest. Aside from a brief backstory, we only ever see him in combat, wielding his weapon and yelling inane commands to his alpha dragon, the dragon that controls all other dragons, like the alien mothership from Independence Day. We know nothing of this man, nothing of his dreams and ambitions, his personal goals or even how he spends his spare time. What piece of real estate does he own? Does he live on his assault barge and order takeaway? Where does he sail from if his accent has hints of Jamaican and Beninese? How has he amassed such a formidable army?
The movie never stops to think about such things. It is more interested in matters of the heart. A new good character is introduced here: Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), who abandoned Berk when Hiccup was a wee lad because she could not kill a dragon. Clearly she hasn’t seen the first How To Train Your Dragon.
There is great joy in the family reunion. Stoick (Gerard Butler), the butch leader of Berk, does a little dance with Valka that rekindles their marriage, despite them not seeing each other for 20 years. Valka, meanwhile, runs the dragon SPCA in a tropical haven that looks like the backlot of the planet Pandora from Avatar. She has a way with the beasts; she can slide off their wings in mid-air and not fear death. Together with her son and his friends, she will try to save all dragons by defeating Drago.
This movie is not the same as its predecessor. It seems dumbed down slightly, as if the first one was too mature for its target audience and the studios wanted to make amends. Rest assured, it wasn’t, and it was still a big bag of fun. This one is too. I enjoyed the action sequences and the swooping dragons. I also enjoyed Valka; she is a complex character, as complex characters go in this sort of movie. But it lacks punch. It lacks a good, proper villain. Someone who will make us fear for our heroes.
And maybe Toothless is beginning to resemble a dog too much. Why is it always necessary for fantastical beasts in kids’ shows to take after animals that live in our homes?
Best Moment | Valka’s entrance.
Worst Moment | Some of Kit Harington’s stunted deliveries as the dragon trapper Eret.