As it turns out, they’ve been doing quite well! The film opens much like the original, with Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup giving us a recap of life in Berk though this time it’s set to the thrilling action of dragon races. We are swiftly reintroduced to the supporting cast that’s returned such as Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); the twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller), Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and, naturally, Astid (America Ferrera). The entire crew returns, competing in what they call races, but works closer to a game of Harry Potter’s Quidditch, and is a rousing way to bring the action and fun back into the film immediately. Noticeably absent is Hiccup, who continues his freewheeling ways from the first film by exploring uncharted lands with his dragon, Toothless, rather than partaking in the festivities.
The charm of Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship remains the strongest element of Dragon 2, the two are nearly inseparable, and it’s clear Hiccup would rather spend time perfecting his solo flying techniques with Toothless than take on the responsibility that his father has bestowed upon him in becoming the next chief of Berk. That’s the theme at the core of How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup learning to grow up and accept responsibility. As his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) struggles with reigning in his free spirited son and getting him to focus more on the betterment of the village, Hiccup works tirelessly at ignoring those wishes and doing as he pleases, even if he feels what he does is best for their people.
That comes in the way of the new antagonist for the film, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a fearsome dragon master, who enslaves the creatures, adorns them in armor and uses them to conquer and control everyone and everything in his path. As the threat of Drago becomes clear, Hiccup decides it’s his duty to enlighten the madman in the ways of coexisting with dragons, and living in peace. This leads to plenty of the series’ signature action, with pulse-pounding flying sequences and a variety of dragons to explore. Which has always been the strong point of these films. The sheer number of dragon varieties is staggering, a number which grows significantly in the sequel, and each seems to have their own personality, strengths and weaknesses. They are all characters unto themselves, and they’re some of the best the film has to offer.
Along the way to try and convince Drago of the errors of his ways, Hiccup comes upon a shocking reveal in that his mother (Cate Blanchett) is still alive and well, and probably the biggest expert on the uniqueness of dragons in the world. However, when his parents are reunited for the first time in nearly 20 years, it’s one of the few times I feel Dragon 2 missed a golden opportunity for a dramatic moment that could have elevated it a bit higher. Rather than have any tension between the two at all, Stoick is immediately enamored with his wife all over again, and no questions or issues were raised about her making the decision to ignore her family and her newborn son for two decades. It didn’t have to last long, but some anger or resentment from Stoick would have added a bit more realism to their dynamic. It doesn’t matter much in the end, because the two do have a sort of irresistible charm when they’re on screen together, including a very touching musical number which is a rarity in these films.
Aside from that lack of drama, there are only two story elements I would have liked to see more attention given to. During the films climactic dramatic moment, when Hiccup is at his highest level of despair, we are teased very briefly with the idea that he may hold some anger and resentment toward Toothless, but that moment flutters away as quickly as it was introduced, which made the entire point moot and seemed awkward for being included. Additionally, the dynamic of Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship goes almost entirely ignored in the film. The two are obviously still close, and have grown closer in the five years since the first film, but aside from a few tender moments, we aren’t given much of a glimpse into how the two work as a couple, and they’re separated for much of the movies duration. Hopefully the already-greenlit sequel with delve into this aspect a bit more, which would also be a natural progression based on the previous two entries.
One of my favorite parts of this sequel, however, is that it isn’t afraid to progress the entire story like many children’s movies are. We’ve seen plenty of franchises start and sequels come and go in the animated department as of late, and few of them recognize the passing of time from one film to the next, none of them as well as Dragon 2. It’s been five years since the events of the original Dragon, and everything seems to have moved forward. Hiccup now looks definitively older, even sporting a bit of beard stubble, Berk looks to have evolved in size as well as layout, and relationship dynamics have all progressed. It’s nice to see these characters growing up with their audience, one of the things that I feel helped the Harry Potter series become the massive success that it was is the fact that the audience was able to easily identify with everything the characters were experiencing, as they continued to age along with their heroes.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes everything that was great about the first film and replicates in, improving in some parts and taking risks in others. A few dramatic miscues along the way aren’t enough to stop me from enjoying it thoroughly, or to stop me from marking off the days on my calendar until I once again get to visit the world of Hiccup, Toothless and Berk. While it may not stand on exact equal footing as it’s predecessor, it’s certainly one of the better animated films in the past 4 years, and will likely remain the best this year has to offer in the genre, which is saying something when you consider the competition that’s already come and gone.