It was probably inevitable that the inevitable sequel to How to Train Your Dragon (2010) would not measure up to the original, but this isn’t a simple case of sequelitis and diminishing returns. The fact is that the second half of the new film is as good as and possibly better than the original. And there are some very good moments in the earlier parts of the film, along with some serious miscalculations. The biggest problem is the double whammy of a movie that can’t be bothered to establish itself and one that has no discernible plot or structure for a very long time. It seems an impossibility, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 somehow manages be both frenetic and meandering at the same time. Yes, that’s a notable accomplishment, but it’s not what I’d call desirable.
The film opens with minimal explanation – obviously, you should have seen the first one (and remembered it for four years) – and maximum frenzy. A great deal of the swooping and soaring that assails the viewer right off the bat concerns the franchise’s screwy version of Quidditch. It is not, however, screwy enough – yeah, I know, nothing says funny like animated sheep – to get past the fact that it feels like the Harry Potter borrowing it is. But it’s less this sort of thing that, for me at least, drags this down a notch than it is the tendency to lack focus for much of the film’s earlier portions. While there were pieces of plot, I spent way too much of the movie waiting for a story to develop. My immediate temptation is to blame this on the absence of writer-director Dean DeBlois’ usual co-writer-director Chris Sanders. This is somewhat borne out by the fact that Sanders’ The Croods (2013) was free of this problem, but it still remains no more than an educated guess. It could as easily just be the film’s attempt to be bigger and more spectacular than its predecessor.
Don’t get the idea that I’m writing off the film. By no means is that my intention. Once the film gets around to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) finding his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett), things become much more grounded and interesting. It is also here that it becomes more and more difficult to discuss the specifics of the movie, including a startlingly dark turn of events, without giving too much away. The emotional resonance of the film’s later sections are stronger than anything in the first film, and the sheer beauty of the imagery may just possibly qualify as the pinnacle of computer animation to date. There are still some peculiarities: The film’s showdown with the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is of such a nature that there is absolutely no reason for his amassed forces and minions. (I guess it looks cool.) And it’s worth noting that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is largely lacking in big laughs, settling instead for gentle amusement. However, the film played well to the audience full of kids I saw it with. They, in fact, stayed in their seats far better than many adult audiences I’ve watched movies with. Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor.