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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

As of today, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. At the time I saw the film, it was sitting at a perfect 100%. There's nothing more joyful than seeing an animated movie that aims to please children but still manages to pull on an adult's nostalgic heartstrings, and with the litany of reviews on its side, I hoped I was walking into one of those kinds of movies. But as the film slowly unraveled, I found myself slowly moving from mildly entertained to bored. And then I left the theater, realizing I would not be part of that highly satisfied majority.

Frankly, that sucks, because picking on a well-liked animated film aimed at children literally feels like being a bully. This is a film that seems to bring children some joy, and I might be the odd man out, but I'm not fully understanding the overwhelming praise from adults.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes place several years after the first film, and opens with footage of Toothless and Hiccup exploring the skies, attempting to map out and explore their world. Hiccup's father, however, struggles to keep Hiccup's feet on the grounds as he prepares his son to take over his legacy. All of these problems are put on hold when - and here's where it gets convoluted - Hiccup discovers his mother and a pack of free dragons, who are eventually pit in a battle against a man who enslaves and controls a whole bunch of other dragons. If it sounds kind of strange and incoherent, that's because it is.

I believe the problem with How To Train Your Dragon 2 is that DreamWorks simply collapsed under the weight of expectation for this film. This movie is MASSIVE in every sense, and it is consequently very broad. The preceding film was a mega hit, the kind of movie that pulled the studio, if not on equal footing, than at least into the breath of conversation generally relegated for Pixar. It was also an incredibly specific story. The sequel abandons the personal narrative that gave the original film such an intimate focus and instead opts for the bigger-is-better approach that all too often mars sequels, particularly of the animated variety. There are parts of the movie I enjoy, but they almost always lean on the goodwill earned from the first installment of this series.

The primary strength of the preceding film is that we get an opportunity to relate to and understand Hiccup's central struggle. By the end of the film, there's a new-found connection between Hiccup and Toothless that I found fairly thought-provoking, particularly given the genre. The best parts of HTTYD2 are the ones that continue to explore this relationship. When Toothless's inner beast and natural instincts cause him to behave very badly, for example - as we've all seen beloved pets do - Hiccup lashes out in anger and struggles to understand and accept the causes behind the dragon's behavior. Where things get messy is when the human-to-human relationships are involved. In spite of one specific challenging and dramatic moment, the human elements to this film feel all over the place.

It's actually somewhat difficult to tell what the underlying theme of HTTYD 2 even is. Is it about being your own man? Is it about the role our maternal figures play in our lives? Is it about how vaguely foreign guys with bigger, meaner dragons are just no good at all? A central thesis never fully forms, and this void is filled with giant Lord of the Rings style action sequences that don't fit in with the series aesthetic whatsoever.

In many ways, it's as if Writer-Director Dean DeBlois had no story to tell, but the economics of franchise culture enforced that such an instance would occur regardless. So much of How To Train Your Dragon 2 feels as though its built to sustain more films under this banner, be it through the introduction of new characters, new mythology, new threats, and the way its central conflict seems to just sort of hang in the balance and only somewhat resolves when the credits hit. It's difficult to shake the feeling that Dreamworks, so terrified of losing audience goodwill, aimed to create as many wide-ranging, crowd pleasing moments as possible, but did so without realizing that those kind of "fist-pumping" sequences come organically and cannot be manufactured. This is the Dreamworks that plays it safe, rather than the much more daring studio that we saw in 2010.

That's not to say there isn't some good here. HTTYD 2 is impeccably designed in terms of its character models, and there are many moments where I had to double take as character actions and facial tics looked as smooth as something you'd see in real life. The overall look of the film is utterly gorgeous as well; with Roger Deakins on as a consultant, carrying over from the first film, this should hardly be a surprise. There are also a few really nice, quiet moments that recapture the old magic between the central figures, but they're so fleeting as we move from one set piece to the next that those scenes feel almost perfunctory. There is simply no room for character arcs in the midst of all this dragon introducing and axe swinging. Perhaps the worst victim of this is Astrid. Hiccup's awesomely refreshing female counterpart is now reduced to being "the girlfriend turned fiance" and plays basically no role in the story at all.

For a fairly broad, beautiful and large-scale visual feast, HTTYD 2 isn't the worst way to spend an afternoon. But I'd caution audiences against the high expectations built up for this movie, both from the critical raves and the goodwill earned by the first film.

Rating: C
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