What we learned about dragons the first time around: They can be trained. What we learn about dragons the second time around: They’re still subservient to the caprices of their bloated, slow-moving alpha. If How to Train Your Dragon saw DreamWorks’s up-to-then mostly flailing animation branch demonstrating a surprisingly thorough understanding of the trainings of Pixar, its sequel can’t seem to shake off the expectations stemming from the 2010 original’s behemoth box-office success. And even though the boy-pet bonding between gawky Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his stealth but goofy sidekick Toothless (Randy Thom) remains as earnest as you please, the simple alchemy of their unlikely union ends up lost amid the needlessly complicated agendas fuelling what is now a fledgling franchise.
Now approaching adulthood even though his voice still hasn’t changed, Hiccup justifies his latent wanderlust by saddling up on Toothless and exploring the far corners of what his Viking brethren can justifiably claim as their territory. While mapping his latest find with his tomboy love interest, Astrid (America Ferrera), in tow, Hiccup happens upon a trawler of dragon trappers and realizes his little island utopia, the Isle of Berk, may not be the only community where dragons and humans coexist. What’s even more frightening is the implication that the other humans who’ve allegedly also tamed the winged beasts aren’t intending to simply keep them as razor-toothed, fire-breathing cuddlemuffins-cum-personal transportation devices.
Hiccup is a willowy pacifist boy-child who has nonetheless earned some measure of respect among a virile race whose leathery necks tent out from beneath their pinheads to a circumference of approximately seven feet. But when his warrior father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), learns that the dragon trappers are working under the orders of the shadowy Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), no amount of strident choruses of “Give Peace a Chance” from Hiccup’s corner will stop Stoick from prepping battle stations. Amid the chest-puffing prelude to war, Hiccup wonders what might have been had he ever gotten to know his mother, who Stoick says was killed by dragons when the boy was an infant. The ensuing quest announces How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a proposal for maternal social structures. (This from a franchise based on a series of books whose female characters bear names like Old Wrinkly and Big-Boobied Bertha.) The original cartoon’s unstinting argument on behalf of grace was among its most compelling features, and you can’t really blame writer-director Dean DeBlois for trying to expand on the theme. But the shift in focus comes at the expense of what made the first movie so exceptional.
A disappointing disconnect manifests itself time and again. Early on in the movie, Hiccup and Astrid make cute passes at each other while Toothless and Stormfly, Astrid’s dragon, romp around in the background like a pair of not especially bright Dalmatians, fighting over uprooted trees as though they were sticks. At first it seems a clever way to allow Toothless to upstage the otherwise tedious expositional orders of business. But then increasingly throughout the movie Toothless gets shuffled to the sidelines to handle intermittent gag patrol, leaving Hiccup without a proper foil and turning him into a wet blanket. In a sense, one could tolerantly say the movie’s heart is in the right place. In a more accurate sense, one could point out the movie’s heart is just goddamned everywhere, and as such is also in a few of the wrong places. Like Toothless himself trying to fight off the hypnotic beck and call of the movie’s malevolent alpha leviathan, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has the core of a genuine crowd-pleaser, but unfortunately something bigger and more all-consuming keeps getting into its head.