The following contains spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is currently playing at AMC Star, Marcus Point & Eastgate, and Stoughton Cinema Cafe
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon is a lot like Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Both films understand the tweaked fairy tale tone in which their stories are told, and they remain satisfying years later because they’re steeped in character and change. Most importantly, both do a stupendous job at being solid if not extraordinary films. They’re fantasy stories perfectly content with being “pretty okay.” (Although what may distinguish the two is that fans of How to Train Your Dragon don’t seem nearly as committed to overselling their beloved.)
“Pretty okay” isn’t a bad thing either. Shirking cheap twists and contrivances allows for their respective stories and characters to breathe. Inigo Montoya exacts his revenge and Westley abandons his pirating ways just as How to Train Your Dragon’s father-son relationship is mended by a world-expanding conclusion. The headstrong chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) and his clumsy son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) spend most of their time together arguing over whether dragons, as the legends have taught the vikings of Berk, really deserve to be feared. When Hiccup befriends and then, yes, trains a deadly “Night Fury,” How to Train Your Dragon’s universe opens up. The eventual union that forms between viking and dragon feels both dramatic and significant, especially at the price certain characters pay to get there.
In this way, I’ve always considered the film adaptation of Cressida Crowell’s books a complete story on its own, an heir to the mature storytelling once reserved for Don Bluth films and Pixar originals. So it’s safe to say I was a little worried (and more than a touch naive) when a sequel was announced.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 plunges right into the world-changing precedent we last ended on, with an opening “dragon race” that catches us up on what’s followed in the last five years during a break-neck action sequence. Hiccup, now a young man, is poised to secede his father as the chief of Berk, however both that plan and that plot thread fall by the wayside when Hiccup learns of a warlord whose dragon-enslaving ways threaten the world he’s worked so hard to build.
Before he can fly off to change the warlord’s mind, Hiccup is intercepted by the “Dragon Rider,” a mysterious outlaw who brings Hiccup and his dragon back to her hideout, an icy, dimly-lit maw whose frozen jaws resemble those of the dozens of dragons that fill it. With a tap of her embossed staff, the thief summons fire from the dragons’ mouths like instant lanterns in darkness. The moment might seem magical were it not for her teasing a wealth of dragon knowledge and her hypnotic presence. In a stand-off powers, the thief is unfazed by Hiccup’s tricks or dragon flame-saber, and crouched stature seems more akin to a primate than the proud, noble vikings of Berk. On all fours, she oozes intrigue and suspense the more she moves and the less she says.
Moody and atmospheric, this meeting between Hiccup and the Dragon Rider is genuinely creepy thanks in large part to an unsettling character design. With blackened sockets for eyes on an expressionless mask, the thief’s appearance has more in common with Avatar’s vague tribal designs or the bag masks in The Strangers rather than something out of a children’s film. Best of all, director Dean DeBlois lets much of the scene play out in its visuals and sound — free of clumsy dialogue and exposition.
That is, until the Dragon Rider reveals herself to be Hiccup’s long-lost mother.
The original How to Train Your Dragon moved past an absent mother to focus on the strained dynamic between Hiccup and Stoick. In an instant, the sequel erases that with a worthless retcon. One could lob a number of criticisms at another “father-son melodrama” at the box office, but at least How to Train Your Dragon doubled down on that divide with life-or-death consequences. Stoick’s original fears that dragons carried his wife away seems like enough fodder to explain his aversion to the beasts, but when Val (played by Cate Blanchett) reveals herself, the film pauses to celebrate instead of ask questions: You left your family to hang out with dragons? Why haven’t you tried flying back for a weekend? And seriously, you left your family to hang out with dragons? Lest we forget, Hiccup’s bravery was once met with amputation and a peg leg, but the sequel’s unearthing of painful memories gets an impromptu dinner party and jokes about bad cooking. Rather than double down, the story doubles back and slams the brakes on the promising speed its opening dragon race suggested.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a bad picture. Its animation rivals that of any Pixar venture and composer John Powell continues to pump up the jams. It even recovers from its stumble with Hiccup’s mother, later readjusting family dynamics in crushing fashion. But what begins as a masterful sequence in a cave (and remains the film’s best moment) is undone by the same kind of backpedaling other summer tentpoles like X-Men: Days of Future Past succumbed to. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t above indulging in the cheap twists its predecessor avoided and winds up with something a bit less than “pretty okay.”