The sequel to the Dreamworks massive success “How to train your dragon” faces, from the beginning, a fairly big issue: the protagonist dragon-tamer Hiccup and his friends have now been aged to a point where they are not very interesting for an animated film targeted at children. Children themselves, and teenagers (like in the first film), that is to say, humans at the age of daily growth and self-discovery, are often the heroes of animated stories, but Hiccup &al are now twenty-somethings, a time when people start taking on adult responsibilities and stop fooling around so much, something which tends to be, frankly, a bit boring in an adventure story for young viewers.
“HTTYD2” finds Hiccup’s Viking village (populated, inexplicably, mostly by ginger Scottish-sounding people, which brings to one’s mind Pixar’s “Brave” a bit too often) turned into a very dragon-friendly place, where manufacturing dragon saddles is the main local industry and dragon racing is the main local entertainment. So the filmmakers must raise the stakes by bringing in trouble from the outside: an evil man by the name of Drogo, who thinks the only way to deal with dragons is to fight them with an army of other dragons, captured and enslaved, and who ends up threatening the dragons from Hiccup’s community. By the way, Drogo happens to be the only dark-haired and dreadlocked person in a sea of blondes and gingers, and he is voiced by an African man, which doesn’t speak well for the racial politics of the filmmakers. He is also a stereotypical villain through and through, the kind that yells “Never!” when he is told to give up, and it’s hard to get too worked up over such a conventional antagonist engaged in such conventional evil-doing.
The script follows very expected story beats and even clichéd lines that have been said before in dozens of similar scripts (while in the cinema, I said loudly “It’s in your heart!” when girlfriend Astrid began telling Hiccup how to find his path in life, and behold, that was exactly what she said a few seconds later.) While the film is mercifully free of the usual pop culture references and fart jokes that constitute comic relief in Dreamworks productions, whatever attempts at comic relief it does have tend to fail: I cringed whenever the Kristen Wiig-voiced Ruffnut was on screen or opened her mouth.
Which isn’t to say that “How to Train your Dragon 2” is a bad film. Its strengths don’t lie in story or characterisation, but in more immediate pleasures. For one thing, it contains an amazing variety of dragons of all shapes and sizes, with great character design, and I wouldn’t mind an entire (wordless) film just about them. The 3D direction for the dragon-flying is very good. Hiccup’s first encounter with a mysterious dragon-riding warrior in awesome armor is excellent, an impacting introduction of a new character (although it made me disappointed to see how little the story does with this character afterwards). There’s an undercurrent of ecology and promoting a compassionate relationship between humans and nature in the whole film, which reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but this is still a Hollywood movie: its idea of a “compassionate relationship” simply means that nature must endure a less violent slavery than the one the villain wants, by turning dragons into pets instead of war weapons. I found admirable the film’s willingness to deal with loss and accept its existence and the fact that it’s irreversible, although I can’t say more about this without spoiling it for you.
If I had to sum up in one sentence my thoughts as I came out of the screening of “How to train your dragon 2”: it was OK, and seemed even more so compared to the dismal trailers that preceded the movie (it’s easy to take the standard of quality of the big studios for granted, but there are so many lesser animated films coming out every year, most of them in the “funny talking animals” category! I didn’t even know!) It’s worth seeing if you loved the first one.