What oh my God what.
Let’s be clear. The original How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is excellent, structurally and emotionally. Both it and its sequel are gorgeous, imaginative, and animated by some of the greatest hands in the business. Each individual frame of How to Train Your Dragon 2 deserves nothing but high-fives down every cubicle row in Glendale.
But the story is a head-scratching mess.
Since 2010, the franchise has kept in fighting form with holiday specials and Riders of Berk on Cartoon Network. Though I’m not familiar with this series, I wonder if some of the best sequel ideas got spent there (a local studies dragon-training for his own nefarious purposes!), or whether an episodic story approach infected this script, because this story doesn’t have just a woman problem. This story has all kinds of problems.
1) No surprises. No secondary conflict.
A Big Bad is introduced. He is who everyone says he is. He’s bad the whole time.
Astrid’s primary purpose is to cheer up Hiccup. Good thing that affianced twentysomethings find nothing to disagree on.
Hiccup and his dad have some disagreement brewing that we only hear about, never see. Instead there are two sequences of Hiccup trying to tell Stoick something, and Stoick ignoring him, which calls into question whether either of them learned anything from the last movie, and also why Stoick wants Hiccup to be chief if Stoick can’t even be bothered to stop and listen to him.
Hiccup’s long-lost mother resurfaces. The reason for her absence makes no sense (she “thought it would be safer for [Hiccup]” because she… likes dragons kind of?) Everyone gets along great and there are no hard feelings. This is despite the fact that her unstated worldview–no people, no problems–would be the PERFECT antithesis for the thesis posed by Hiccup’s dad: “We take care of our own.” Of course dragons are simpler than people. Of course everybody’s got a little loner weirdo in them who wants to run off and live among the animals a while.
But there’s a downside to the comfort zone, and you can’t build a life with a pet, and it’s the challenge of human interaction that makes it so rewarding, and so on. Alas this movie doesn’t go there. A song and a hug and a few bouts of feminine tears and Hiccup’s family unit is perfectly repaired. (Until other stuff, utterly unrelated to Valda’s return, happens.)
2) Of the three new characters are introduced, two are discarded by the third act.
Hiccup’s long-lost mother, Valda (Cate Blanchett), arrives on the scene in one of the baddest-ass, highest-flying character introductions of all time, dumps a truck of exposition, and then TAKES NO ACTION for the rest of the movie. None. Doesn’t use her physical skills or encyclopedic dragon knowledge to fight the baddie. Doesn’t even express a contrary thought or feeling that might rev up a little conflict. Nothing. Twenty minutes after she’s introduced, she becomes furniture. It’s very annoying.
Dragon-trapper Eret (Kit Harington) does enjoy a character arc (he’s anti-dragon until a dragon saves his life), but the biggest thing he accomplishes is stealing a heroic moment that should have been Astrid’s: when Astrid, Eret, Ruffnut, Tuffnut, Snotlout and Fishlegs are captured by trappers and forced to walk the plank, it’s up to the most alert and cunning of the bunch to save them… a-a-and it’s Eret. Then he vanishes from the movie.
The story’s Big Bad, Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), does stick around until the third act. But he’s introduced in another exposition dumptruck, given one performance note (be bad), and assigned unclear motives (he wants to build a dragon army to… protect people from wild dragons? Conquer people? Get revenge for his lost arm?) Why is he, more than any other person who’s been fighting dragons for hundreds of years, able to subjugate dragons with violence? Why does he even bother trapping individual dragons when all he has to do is subjugate the most dominant dragon, which apparently will give him complete control over every dragon in its orbit? Most crazy-makingly, why does he literally sit back during the final fight to let Hiccup and Toothless hug it out?
But that’s not even half of the problem with Drago…
3) The Big Bad is the only brown person.
Drago Bloodfist is swarthy, dreadlocked, and facially scarred. When he was introduced–backlit, face obscured–I assumed this character was using a disguise. Nope. Then I hoped that Hiccup would be right that even the biggest baddest Other-est enemy can be reasoned with. Nope. Then I hoped this character wasn’t voiced by the only Black person in the cast. Nope–Djimon Hounsou.
Also, in case the subtext is too sub, the baddie alpha dragon is a soot-blackened version of the noble goodie white dragon.
4) Emotion is unearned.
I could really take a pass on montages of characters crying. If the funeral takes longer than the death, it means the death pulled a punch. (Exception that proves the rule: Dobby.)
5) Cool things about the first movie get retconned.
First movie: your actions make you what you are. Second movie: your mom’s hobbies make you what you are.
First movie: you can’t choose your family. Second movie: your parents will reconcile if you’re good.
First movie: disability and disfigurement is a part of life. Second movie: yeah, sometimes, but moreso it’s a sign of internal corruption.
First movie: there is no evil, only fear and misunderstanding. Second movie: some people and animals just have to be blown up.
First movie: if you love a thing, set it free. Second movie: if you love a thing, subjugate it to your will so it will be safe.
- Toothless can’t fly without Hiccup riding him–except when he can.
- I hope How to Train Your Dragon 3 comes back with a vengeance in 2017