It’s not often that we’re lucky enough to get two extremely well-made sequels in the same weekend. In this case, we managed to get 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Both take very different approaches in successfully continuing their original films.
While 22 Jump Street takes a somewhat meta approach to deconstructing sequels in general and tweaking the formula, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the epitome of the modern franchise film. Like Kung Fu Panda 2 before it, Dragon picks up where the previous film left off with nary an ounce of fat on it. There is no regurgitation of the first film here. We don’t have to sit by as Hiccup has to train yet another dragon or retrain his pet Night Fury Toothless. Nope. Whereas previously studios worried incessantly about making films accessible to new audiences who may not have seen the first or doing the exact same thing again, the new franchise model, as seen in films like this or the Marvel movies, simply tells the next chapter in the story of these characters. The audience, most likely having seen the movie twenty times (or more, as is likely with the original Dragon, knowing how kids love that movie) is expected to keep up, get the callbacks and in general know what’s going on. Home video has effectively forever changed how sequels are made for the better. Now if there isn’t a story worth telling that can be a problem, but fortunately for Dreamworks, Dean DuBois has definitely found something worth showing us.
The direction that Dragon 2 takes is largely the expansion of its mythology, introducing new types of dragons and literally increasing the world of the first film immeasurably. This is quickly established in a rather great bit of visual exposition as Hiccup and Toothless are out exploring to find new lands and new species, unfolding a rather unwieldy looking map.
If there’s one thing that bothers me about the film it is the relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoic the Vast, which seems to have taken huge strides forward, yet still exhibits many of the problems they had in the first film. Maybe that simply makes it more realistic since even when people change, they still have their personality, but it also makes it frustrating. Stoic wants Hiccup to become the chief of Burke, their rocky little island village because of how he changed life for everyone. Hiccup simply wants to explore and do what he enjoys. His dad refuses to listen despite how the entire reason he wants his son to take over being because people listen to him. Do interpersonal relationships take that type of paradoxical sheen to them? Sure. But it still is maddening. On the plus side, you have Hiccup’s love interest from the first film, Astrid, who is a much more interesting character here simply because her relationship with Hiccup has changed in a big but understandable and ultimately believable way. Their chemistry together is far more palpable and their romance, at this point having gone on for years, is expertly written. If there’s one thing this film does especially well, it is lay out exposition in interesting ways and we learn everything we need to know about their feelings for each other as Astrid gently mocks Hiccup and his mannerisms, spilling over with playfulness and affection. At the same time, she is seeding important information on how things have changed in the five years that have passed since the last film. (The kids are supposed to be in their 20s now.) It’s a master-class in serving multiple functions with one scene.
The basic plot revolves around a couple of major tremors in Hiccup’s life. For anyone that managed to avoid having the surprise ruined for them by the trailers, I’ll just say that one is of a deeply personal nature that effects both him and his father. The other is the discovery of a long lost foe of Stoic’s, a mysterious figure that seeks to capture and control all of the dragons he can lay his hands on, simultaneously claiming to be protecting people from dragons while using them to conquer all who lay in his path. He definitely serves as an example in my theory that you should never trust a white dude with dreds. Despite the shallowness of his character, he manages to be a pretty impressive threat.
The voice work has only gotten stronger with the cast. Despite my misgivings about the way their relationship is portrayed, Jay Barruchel and Gerard Butler deliver outstanding performances. Butler especially delivers a kind of nuance that I don’t think I’ve experienced in his live action films. America Ferrera’s Astrid greatly improves on the original. The writing no doubt had a lot to do with it, but it would not succeed if she hadn’t stepped up her game. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the “kids” have much to do this time around with Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill pretty much doing the same things that they did last time to the same effect. The opening sequence with their characters playing a new sport that blows quidditch out of the water is an instant classic, however. If there’s one disappointment, it is that Craig Fergusen doesn’t have as much to do as Gobber, but there’s always next time.
If there’s a central theme to the first film, it almost seemed to be that sometimes tradition can be wrong and that new ideas can bring about prosperity and improvements. If there’s a theme to this film it would almost seem to be the opposite; your parents have been around and sometimes they know best based on their years of experience. It’s nice to see some balance and not just have another kids movie worshipping youth culture and declaring children are right about everything and those darned old adults are just stodgy dopes clinging to the past. There’s room for both sides to be right, sometimes even simultaneously. If it sounds like a complex idea, don’t worry. While it’s decidedly more intelligent than a lot of what purports to be family fare, it is not some preaching drag. It is full of action, lots of fun and some decidedly cool moments to go with the drama. (My friend I saw it with spent a great deal of the movie fangirling out, if that’s any indication.)
(Four damns given out of five)