I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how smart and engrossing How to Train Your Dragon (2010) would turn out. It had, after all, been decades since Hollywood produced an earnest animated fantasy free of self-referential subversion and cheeky pop culture references. Ever focused on adventure, the film ended with the promise of further action-packed discoveries, so the news of a spinoff cartoon show came as little shock to me. I was even less surprised when Dreamworks announced How to Train our Dragon 2, and, if the latter serves as any indication, I can all but guarantee How to Train our Dragon 3.
This is not to say writer-director Dean DeBlois could have phoned it in. If anything, the weekly TV series presents a unique set of challenges for a sequel. How, for example, does one incorporate the various developments in Dragons: Riders of Berk without alienating viewers who skipped on the cartoon? How to Train Your Dragon 2 sidesteps the issue by jumping forward in time so that we expect change in the characters. Five years have passed since the events of the first movie, and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has grown into a confident explorer who can soar on his own (he has trouble landing though) and wield a nifty flame sword. Whether he built the doohickey off screen or acquired it in the show doesn’t matter.
I imagine Dragons: Riders of Berk must have turned the spotlight to some of the supporting cast as well because How to Train our Dragon 2 has got more of an ensemble feel, devoting part of its runtime to a romantic subplot involving Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig). I’d call it a love triangle, but it’s really more of a rectangle, as the latter Viking crushes on Eret (Kit Harington), a Han-Solo-like rogue who, interestingly, displays better chemistry with Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). I love that I can make such a claim about these characters. They feel so real, and therein lies the key.
You see, another major hurdle proper to How to Train Your Dragon 2 consists of justifying a theatrical release when the adventure could’ve just as well been split into several cartoon episodes. Most televised franchises would simply boost the threat, providing us with a larger-than-life villain prone to expensive pyrotechnics. I suppose Drago (Djimon Hounsou) fits the bill, what with his plan to subjugate all dragons and his reliance on a secret weapon that takes up nine tenths of the screen. However, that’s not the focus of DeBlois’ story.
Rather, How to Train Your Dragon 2 stands out from the average television fair by increasing the emotional stakes for Hiccup, touching on the core of his insecurities and then sucker punching him with a truly gut-wrenching twist. The resurgence of his long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), has been well advertised. However, no one could’ve guessed from the trailers just how moved we’d all be by her reunion with the gruff but unwaveringly loving Stoick (Gerard Butler). In just one exchange, our hero’s parents capture all the weight and romance of a twenty-year-old affair more powerful than all the Disney princess courtships combined.
I like their gender dynamic as well. Hollywood family films typically portray the dad as the neglectful idealist, relegating the mom to the role of family caretaker. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, though, Valka is the one to abandon her loved ones for what boils down to a political disagreement, leaving Stoick to raise their son alone. Mind you, her decision is presented as a mistake (one the characters can all understand and forgive), as Hiccup already achieved her goal in the first movie precisely by never giving up on his father.
By the same token, Astrid shows more ambition and aptitude for the role of village chief, rejoicing when her boyfriend is offered the job and rallying the troops when he goes missing, but then the girl keeps screwing up because, like Stoick, she’d rather fight for her beliefs than share her insight. Hiccup, on the other hand, tempers his idealism with a nurturing instinct reminiscent of the dragon king. This subtle contrast cements DeBlois’ message about leadership and, to me, validates How to Train Your Dragon 2 not just as a worthy sequel but as a fantastic movie in its own right.