How to Train Your Dragon 2 has been occupying my mind for something like two years now, lurking uncomfortably halfway between excitement and dread. Excitement because I love the first film – far more than it probably deserves – but dread because this is another sequel from the company that made Shrek 3 and Kung Fu Panda 2. Now that I’ve seen the film it’s still on my mind, only now it’s somewhere between satisfaction and disappointment.
The story picks up five years after the first film, with the Vikings of Berk happily sharing their lives with the dragons that used to be their enemies. The dragon riders, led by Hiccup and Toothless, are exploring and mapping the world which used to be beyond their reach. That world, they quickly discover, is bigger and more dangerous than they suspected, as they’re dragged into an ongoing battle between a dragon-enslaving warlord and a mysterious new dragon-master whose identity was spoiled in the trailers ([blackout]it’s Hiccup’s mum[/blackout]). There’s also a gang of nasty dragon-trappers, an entire fleet of barbarians, and a whole host of new dragons – some of which totally dwarf the big one from last time.
It’s bigger, is what I’m saying. The world is bigger, the dragons are bigger, the story is bigger, and some of the action-scenes are just enormous. There’s a huge beach-invasion with warriors and dragons on both sides, and it’s every bit as spectacular as it sounds. It’s still huge when there’s no action, too, with hundreds of dragons circling overhead and hundreds of ships below. Even the smallest, quietest scenes in the movie take place in breathtaking ice-caverns and endless moonlit beaches.
This new sense of scale isn’t just a visual thing, either. The whole thing feels epic, in the true sense, telling a sweeping story about families and legacies and free-will. We’ve gone from a tale about the fate of one dragon to one about every dragon in the world. Where the first film dealt in small, subtle emotions, the sequel goes for big operatic gestures – huge heroic scenes, moments of crushing sadness, and one specific image that’s going to give a lot of kids (and me) nightmares for years to come. Everything is magnified this time round, and it works amazingly, delivering on a scale the original could only dream of.
Unfortunately, the movie’s size is also its main problem. There’s so much going on – so many big ideas vying loudly for attention – that a lot of it feels rushed and stilted. Flashbacks are used as clumsy exposition-dumps, a whole army just disappears in the last act, and a lot of the characters get sidelined. There are two or three central relationships that the film wants to focus on, and those parts work perfectly, making us really feel and care – but they come at the expense of characters like Astrid, who was so important to the first film but now gets relegated to just the girlfriend role. Even Toothless suffers from this, vanishing into the background for most of the second act. When he suddenly becomes important again, towards the end, it honestly seems to come out of nowhere – it should have enormous emotional weight, but it mainly just gave me whiplash.
Yet none of this would probably bother me if it weren’t for the music. John Powell’s work on the first How to Train Your Dragon is, for my money, a pretty strong contender for best score ever written – full of beauty and wonder and capable of bringing grown men to tears. We even played it at our wedding! But Powell feels strangely absent this time round. There’s no memorable new themes to rival the originals and, worse, even those original themes fall flat. There’s an early flying scene which should be a joyous reprise, but it struggles under a weird vocal arrangement instead. While a few things feel problematic, the soundtrack is the only thing that’s actually disappointing.
Too Big to Fail?
Please don’t let any of this make you think it’s a bad film. It’s a great film. It’s thrilling, it’s beautiful, it’s funny, it’s scary – it’s even pretty emotional (I cried twice, for the record). How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes everything that worked about the first one – stunning visuals, great characters, tons of heart – and blows it out of proportion, creating something new and unique. It never quite captures the magic of the original, but maybe that doesn’t matter – it’s a worthy successor and, more importantly, it’s a million miles from the disaster it could have been.
When it was first announced, I was terrified this film would suffer the same fate as Dreamworks‘ other sequels. The problem with those (and with most bad sequels) is that they try to do the same thing all over again, but fail. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t like that – it’s trying to do something completely different this time, and it definitely succeeds… I just feel like it lost something in the process.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out now in the UK and US. Our reviewer bought his own tickets.