Opinion Piece

Random Loot: How to Train Your Dragon 2, Or How To Make A Sequel

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 Random Loot is a series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews or even standard opinion pieces. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views or ideas in a quick, easy format. You’ve been warned.

SPOILER WARNING: This entire piece assumes that you’ve either watched the film in its entirety or are not concerned by spoilers and simply want to read an opinion on the movie.  Major plot elements will be discussed. You have been warned. Again.

I’ll preface this entire piece by confessing my undying love for the first How to Train your Dragon, a beautiful, brilliant movie that came out of nowhere to win over fans and critics alike with it’s ridiculously lovable dragon/boy relationship. It remains one of my favorite films of all time, and one that I regularly watch, finding it easy to go back to over and over.  Naturally my expectations for a sequel were high, contrasting what has become quite a deep cynism about sequels in general in most forms of media.

So let’s get this out of the way: How to Train your Dragon 2 is a great movie in its own right, carrying with it familiar themes from the first film and ideas we have come to associate as standard animated fare. As a sequel it’s truly brilliant, building on what came before while defying much of the norm for these sorts of things. Yes, it does have some themes that have carried over from the first film, and yes there are flaws, but almost every time I thought I saw what was coming, things played out differently, and for the entire second half I genuinely had no idea where the film was going to go, a welcome change from being able to predict every moment, as per most sequels.

The subversion begins with the decision to set the movie five years after the events of the first How to Train your Dragon, catapulting all the characters forward so that now Hiccup is a young man having to contemplate taking on the role of Chief, a responsibility he doesn’t want. Instead Hiccup’s all grown up, and sports a badass suit filled with gadgets which helps him and Toothless out as they explore the world, charting the different lands and people that they find along the way. The island of Berk gives way to a far grander world for this sequel which introduces us to new people and offers a deeper look at dragon lore, all while taking the characters we had already come to love and adding a whole new layer to their personalities. The bickering of Ruffnut, Tuffnut, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Astrid and Hiccup has given way to the jostling and casual insulting of a group of friends that know each other well.

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While Hiccup began life as the outsider, the nerdy kid who didn’t fit in with the other vikings, he’s now gained a confidence in himself, even if he’s still not entirely sure exactly what he intends to do with his life past exploring the world that now lies before him. It’s here that we see the foundations for the inevtiable sequel: Hiccup’s building a substantial looking map, and throughout the course of the film mentions encountering several other people on his many adventures, many of whom were a tad shocked at a dragon landing in their gardens. Although by the end we see Hiccup take on the role of chief to his people, dragons have indeed made the world a smaller place, and it feels like the writers wanted to make it clear that there’s a lot more out there yet.

The leap forward in time is a daring move, especially since the kids that watched the first movie haven’t grown up anywhere near as much as Hiccup and his friends have, yet everything is kept relatable for the younger viewers while the change gives older fans even more to enjoy. It’s also enabled a fairly typical tale of coming into manhood, tackling standard ideas of accepting responsibilities and one’s place within the massive tapestry that is life, but one that is brimming with heart and good ideas. Usually within animations we never see characters actually age. Despite raising a family the animals of Ice Age never aged, nor did Shrek it seems, and so to see the entire world of Berk age felt good.

Rather than attempting to ram a bunch of exposition down our throats about the changes to both Berk and the characters are introduced organically into this new paradigm through a fun opening sequence which nicely holds off on revealing Hiccup’s surprisingly handsome face. In such a long period of time between the events of the first film and this one things have changed. This brings me to one of best things about the movie: Astrid and Hiccup’s relationship. Going into the film I was expecting to sit through a standard will-they-won’t-they romance between the two, since we had the buildings blocks laid for just that in the first film. In short I was expecting the usual love story of two kids destined to be together, but the movie fooled.  The leap in time presents us with Astrid and Hiccup as a loving couple who are both clearly completely at ease with each other. Rather than shoving the romance in our face with exaggerated displays of romance it’s conveyed subtlety through the gentle, loving, affectionate actions of both characters, like the way Astrid sits close to Hiccup and idly braids part of his hair, or the way they banter back and forth or the way she imitates his mannerisms. It’s a romance that is kept purely to the background, and feels all the more natural for it.

Astrid-Hiccup

Kudos must also be given for the decision to simply not even hint at a love triangle, which I admit to expecting as soon as Kit Harington’s dragon trapping character arrived on the scene. Instead such a thing isn’t even vaguely hinted at, instead it’s Ruffnut who goes all gooey eyed over him, although sadly this isn’t enough to stop Harington’s character feeling largely pointless in the movie, but we’ll get back to that later on.

Like almost everyone else I’m incredibly angry that marketing chose to give away the return of Hiccup’s mum in the trailers as it ruins what should have been a powerful moment, one that we the audience should have felt along with Hiccup.  How the PR team thought that disclosing her return to Hiccup’s life in a bloody trailer would be a good thing is beyond me, but it’s just one more example of trailers show way too damn much of the film.

My expectations with the arrival of Valka were that we would get one of two things, either the typical conflict between Hiccup and his mother before achieving resolution or that her presence within such an amazing community of dragons would act as a catalyst for further arguments between Hiccup and  Stoick, with Hiccup coveting the sort of freedom his mother has over the responsibility Stoick is expecting him to take on. Both of these would have been the standard movie route and understandable decisions, but instead the film’s writers chose to avoid family conflict, opting to leave Hiccup shocked but ultimately happy at finding his mother once again and Stoick simply overjoyed to have his wife returned to him. We never get Hiccup angst-ridden or angry at his abandonment, and I welcome that, because while his anger would have been justified given the situation  his reaction feels just as natural, and is more in keeping with his character. Likewise the reunion between Stoic and his wife evades the well-trodden route, providing the film’s true love story, which one would have naturally assumed to be  Hiccup and Astrid’s role. Once again it somehow makes Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship feel all the more real and solid. We  don’t need to see them dance around each other, because we already know they were made for each other and would end up together, whereas Stoick and his wife was unanswered question.  Indeed, the dance between Stoick and Valka is a beautiful scene, only marred by the interruption of Gobber, his role to introduce humour into a section of the film that didn’t need it.

Stoick

And of course speaking of Stoick the Vast that brings us to the film’s biggest surprise and its darkest moment. The decision to kill Hiccup’s father at the unwilling paws of Toothless was far darker than I ever expected of a film aimed at children. I don’t mind admitting that I let out an audible gasp in the cinema, leaning forward in my chair with a dumbstruck look plastered across my face. The idea of them maybe killing someone off had crossed my mind, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine Stoick would be the one to meet his demise, especially at the hands (paws) of Toothless. As twists go it certainly caught me off-guard. Perhaps I should have seen it coming given the sweet family reunion. Having said that I do think they could have played up the fallout between Hiccup and Toothless a little longer and stronger.

Whereas the first film was about a young boy who fights to change the views of his stubborn people and be proven right, the second movie opts to almost slap Hiccup in the face. He’s determined that the big baddie can talked to and a peaceful solution attained, but the writers take the first movie and flip it on its head so that this time it’s Hiccup that’s wrong and Stoick that’s right. Despite his new-found confidence, Hiccup is incorrect and must learn the harsh lesson that not everybody in the world can be reasoned with, and he pays the ultimate price in the form of his father’s death for trying to hold to his ideals. Hiccup’s idealism gets smashed, and for a movie aimed at kids it’s yet another small subversion of what the audience would normally expect to see.

Of course no movie is perfect. As a villain Drago certain is intimidating, but despite his backstory he comes across as a completely one-dimensional, a simple take-over-the-world-because-reasons bad guy, a shame given that his missing limb and mastery of dragons paints him as an evil opposite to Hiccup in many ways, a mirror image that could have been used to far greater effect.  The writers also left a major plot hole by never explaining how Drago was able to dominate and control the Alpha dragon. Speaking of which having a massive dragon controlling the others is just a bit too similar to the plot of the last film, although I concede that it does make for some interesting speculation regarding the hierarchy of the dragons. Presumably the big bastard in the first film was a rank or two below the Alphas seen in How To Train Your Dragon 2.

The film also felt like it needed to be longer in order to better explore some of the characters and script. Hiccup’s viking buddies sort of get lost in the fray along the way, with even Astrid failing to get any real character development. Indeed, nobody except Hiccup seems to get a proper arc, instead the film mostly relies on the audience already being invested in the characters from the first movie. Extra time could have also been given over to fleshing out Drago, perhaps through a flashback to his traumatic experience with the dragons. Failing a longer runtime I would have happily seen the sub-plot with Kit Harington’s character cut out entirely, the time given over to Ruffnut, Tuffnut, Fish Legs and Snotlout instead, and Astrid allowed to play a bigger role. While I like the idea of Kit’s character his role in the film is under-developed, and I would have had no issue with it being cut in favor of other things.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 Film Picture (1)

How to Train your Dragon 2 is a truly beautiful movie, a fantastic display of detail and wonderful animation. Once again the best example of this is Toothless, whose many quirks and little movements create a character that feels completely real and absurdly lovable. He’s a marvel of modern animation, the kind of creature that every kid would want as a pet. Everywhere you look in this movie there’s a tonne of detail to be admired, while the animations is slicker than ever before, and that’s coupled with a great eye for the camera work. The flying sequence is amazing, the introduction to the dragon community lovely, and the massive battle scene…well, massive. I cannot wait until the blu-ray is released so I can watch it twice in quick succession: once for the story, and once more just to try and appreciate every aspect of the visual design. But then I’ve always had a deeper love for animated movies than I do for live-action, so I’m certain biased.

surprisingly I saw it in 3D. In case you were not aware I really can’t be bothered with 3D. While I like the concept in general, the implementation is mostly lackluster, with very few films managing to actually prove themselves worthy of the often absurd prices demanded for their viewing. But due to time constraints the only screening me and my friends could grab was 3D, and to my utter surprise it was brilliant. The inflated price was still a punch in the gut, but the 3D was handled beautifully, and several scenes were very impressive.

Finally, it has to be said that be it deliberate or not it’s nice to see a strong theme of support running through this film and its predacessor in regards to physical disabilities. In this movie Hiccup is largely unhindered by the loss of his foot and performs impressive feats of agility using his prosthesis, while of course Toothless has a damaged tail but is likewise leading a normal life. The dragon community  has its fair share of dragons missing limbs and whatnot. Even the main baddie is missing his arm, and in a way is reminding us how easy it could be to succumb to a darker path by giving into the depression such a loss could cause. Whereas for Drago his loss put him on a path of destruction, Hiccup rose stronger than ever.

Needless to say How to Train you Dragon is a movie I loved from start to finish. Though there is a few undeniable flaws, it’s otherwise an outstanding sequel and brilliant film in its own right. I still enjoyed the first movie more, but that’s only because it introduced me to the world and the characters so brilliantly, engaging me in the quirky relationship between boy and dragon, mixing age-old tropes with oodles of heart.  No matter how good a sequel was it could never have quite the same impact on me that the first did. But I suppose this does raise the question of whether I view the second movie as the better film, and that’s a tough call. Again, it mixes age-old tropes in with lashings of warmth and heart, but also subvert my expectations of an animated sequel in several ways, to the point where the entire second half of the film was largely beyond my predication, which felt wonderful.

So is it a better film? Yes.

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