Viking flute-laden music? Check.
Flying sequences? Check.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 has the charms of its predecessor, a few new characters, and the potential to be one of those sequels that's actually as good as the first.
Here's the problem: it's not very original. The good news? You'll still enjoy it.
Given this sequel's formula-driven plot, it seems like the first How To Train Your Dragon was just laying the groundwork for Hiccup's (Jay Baruchel) unavoidable coming-of-age tale. The dragons are trained. His dad is proud of him. Now he can, in his own words, "find out who I am," and discover that, in his girlfriend's words, "it comes from in here" (she says as she thumps her chest).
Kickstarted by his need to find his identity, Hiccup and company (Jonah Hill, Kristen Wigg and others) run into dragon-hunters, discover a dragon haven, and fight an evil dragon warlord. Every step is completely predictable, but the ride as a whole is genuinely sweet.
I'll admit I was surprised that I enjoyed it, especially given Dreamworks' tendency to employ tiring tropes in almost every animated sequel. For example, in Madagascar 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, and Shrek 2, there was a tedious meet-the-parents situation that resulted in some serious revelations of the main character's "who-I-am"-ness.
And they do it again here, true to form. But it doesn't take over the rest of the film. These scenes are mercifully brief and, thankfully, appropriately serious. They're also colored by a sincerity that relies more on visual style than dialogue; this is true of the film as a whole, setting it apart from these other Dreamworks sequels.
As Russ Breimeier said of the first How To Train Your Dragon, the non-plot elements are what really makes it worth watching. Toothless the lovable dragon is back, as are his adorable, ingeniously communicative facial expressions. I almost didn't realize how much I actually enjoyed this guy. In a climatic perilous moment, an evil hypnotizing dragon turns Toothless into a mindless drone, and for a horrifying minute, I definitely missed him.
In fact, frights like these throughout the film were actually frightening. The tone of the tale is just sober enough to keep me asking obvious questions like "but he's gonna be okay, right?"
Maybe it's this tone that gives the two-part saga a sort of respectability that's a little harder to find in other two-part animated features. It's more of a melancholy adventure with sparse stabs at humor, instead of a cacophony of jokes piled on top of a plot that's only as sober as it needs to be.
That's not to say that the stabs of humor are particularly good ones. Dragon 2 dialogue resorts to cheap slapstick almost more than Dragon 1. However, the visual humor prevails. There are baby dragons with different antics and crazy big eyeballs—they're almost as funny as Toothless is lovable. There's also a collection of love stories: an old romance between two adults, a new love triangle centered on Ruffnut (Kristen Wigg) that completely flops, and the relationship of Hiccup and Astrid. We don't get to see them interact much beyond that early scene, except for short pep talks before battle and quick "Take em down, babe!" cheers here and there. All were a bit disappointing and begged for more development.
A nice surprise plot element shows up near the end: Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) gives his son some specific advice at the beginning of the film, which Hiccup immediately acts against.
But in the end, it turns out Dad was right—and this feels kind of fulfilling to see, if only because it's the reversal of the original father-son situation in Dragon 1 (and dozens of other movies dating back to The Little Mermaid and beyond).
So there's familial goodness, articulate visuals, possibly Jay Baruchel's best role, Kristen Wigg's worst, and a really cute Toothless dragon. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is familiar—but that doesn't mean it's not fun.
Everybody finds themselves in perilous situations, including burning, drowning, and falling out of the sky. An important adult character dies and the body is burned. Toothless (and other dragons) get hypnotized and become evil for a scary couple of minutes. A goofy unfunny female Viking character says slightly suggestive things to her crush (like "take me").
Taylor Lindsay is a writer in New York City. She was Christianity Today Movies' fall intern and contributes regularly to Indiewire.
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