The second installment of How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters with a bang this weekend.
I enjoyed every moment of it.
Too many sequels attempt to make money by recreating the first movie as closely as possible on every point. From a timid, money-seeking perspective there may be some weak arguments for that. But the truly great stories continue on from the first movie, weaving what has happened before into a more enjoyable whole. The Matrix trilogy (plus assorted anime and game elements) are a classic example, and though reactions are mixed as the journey went to the metaphorical digital underworld and back, it earned those reactions because it dared to continue to tell the tale. Star Wars Episodes 4 – 6 (you know, the real movies that should be red along with the Timothy Zahn Heirs of the Empire trilogy and then left in a box) did the same thing.
How to Train Your Dragon was a coming-of-age tale about an adolescent boy and dragon, both misfits, finding the powerful love of true friendship, and then through that power they transformed their war-torn village into a tiny little paradise. That was an excellent story, but Dreamworks did not return to those elements. The story picks up five years later with Hiccup and Toothless as young adults on the verge of complete independence. Dragon-slaying has disappeared and dragon-racing is the primary pass-time, much to the terror of adorable and hilarious digital sheep used to keep score.
All the elements from the original movie that I loved are present. The visual effects are fully worth the 3-D. The voice acting is a constant treasure, frequently over the top in all the same glorious ways. I particularly enjoyed the constant by-play in the background. There is either snarky commentary by Gobber, eye-popping visuals, or entertaining dragon’s doing a puppy/kitten impersonation with their playful manners.
The film does an excellent job with character development. With the cast at twenty, that fascinating age where young people seem to flip back and forth between thirteen and thirty like switches, there are some fun and sometimes heavy-handed attempts to make humor accessible to all audiences, which means that it has to be silly enough and blatant enough to entertain a seven-year-old. There are a few romantic character issues (both the sexual kind and the asexual kind with love of friends, allies, and pets) that are there purely for the grown-ups in the audience. When Hiccup and his girlfriend finish each others sentences for a scene at a time, it is obvious that their fates are sealed.
Creature design is excellent. There is a slight inconsistency in the idea of shot count that was a critical point in the original film and does not appear to be a big deal here. Perhaps the trained dragons have been working out?
Djimon Hansou has been a vocal presence since Gladiator and he services an excellent bad guy. What gamers call power creep (the idea that every new adventure must have a higher level of power than the ones before it to maintain dramatic tension) is here in spades, but it makes sense as part of Burke’s expanding resources and mobility.
Now for a handful of awesome truths without too much in the way of spoilers.
1] There are things more important than family (see the Patriot and the Bible for starters) but family is always going to be critically important, and they pay a price when we must choose larger things over them. It’s not impossible for this to be true, I mean the apostles left their homes and families to follow Jesus around, and soldiers are not all single bachelors.
2] True love, real, true love, has the power to overcome the most incredible pains in life. There is no loss or hurt that love cannot overcome if you endure in love. This was present in the first story as well. Hiccup crippled Toothless for life when he didn’t understand the harm he was doing, and they grew together closer than brothers as they learned to accept and love one another afterwards. I can’t say how this principle shows up in this film without spoiling anything. Here on earth, it showed up as a cross.
3] Love appears a lot in romance, but there is a ton of love outside of romance, and Family is what we make it. Stoick’s best friend Gobber is as much part of their family as the rest, the crazy uncle who is not actually related. Then a pet-oriented movie is perhaps the best genre to explore non-sexual love and passion for our loved ones. It is a truth that we lose too easily as adults to our great detriment.
4] The pursuit of peace is very brave and noble. The statement from First Knight that “There is a peace that can only be found on the other side of war.” is also true. It is weaker to never make peace, and weaker to hold to pacifism beyond rationality like a child clinging to a worn out safety blanket that has no real power to banish the monsters in the world. I love this film because it is about dragon-riding Viking warriors who seek peace first, and can really kick some butt without crying about it later when they need to. Even Stoick the Vast, who seems to be the warmonger in this film, turns out to be a peacemaker who has a better read on the situation than his less-experienced son.
5] Hormones fire fast but they frequently miss the target. (Right, twins?)
Right. There is a lot more to say about this, but I will dig into the film some more with spoilers next weekend.