Gorgeous visuals and the addition of a strong new character (voiced by Cate Blanchett) don't make up for a lackluster villain or the dumbing-down of the flying dragons
Let us laud and lament the once mighty dragon, the king of the sky, and a worthy foe of men. His coat was tougher than steel, his wings wider than hills, and his eyes brighter than all the stars. To slay him was a lifelong laurel, but to be slayed by him was no disgrace.
In “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” these fire-breathing majesties devolve into flying puppies. Sure, they're still covered in bumps and scales, but they're always ready with a wet tongue and a throaty growl of approval. Like dogs, they're friendly and, okay, potentially deadly, but most pertinently, they're profoundly stupid. In the same way a Pomeranian bears the mildest resemblance to a grey wolf, the now-domesticated dragons in this sequel are so far removed from their counterparts in the crowd-pleasing first installment that writer-director Dean DeBlois might as well have made a flying “Lassie” movie.
DeBlois, who also co-wrote and co-directed the original film, capably refashions much of the material from the 2010 coming-of-age romp into a sprawling epic. The extra canvas DeBlois unfurls for himself gives him plenty of space to create new visual wonders and one new fascinating character: heroic Hiccup's reclusive mother Valka, voiced by Cate Blanchett. But a rote war plot with a thinly motivated adversary jettisons the small charms that made the first film so winsome.
“How to Find Your Dragon 2” frequently finds Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) flying beside his pet dragon Toothless. The nerdy, peg-legged tinkerer, now a few years older, has made himself a winged suit, as well as sundry other thingamajigs hanging off his person. He's the Tony Stark of the pre-medieval era, complete with a blond sidekick who's too good for her gig, in this case the hyper-competent Astrid (America Ferrera).
Hiccup's inventions are interesting, but he remains flighty and slightly dull. His father Stoick's (Gerard Butler) demands that Hiccup prepare for chiefdom give him a reason to flee his village and attempt to negotiate peace with dragon-hunter Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a mysterious warlord who threatens invasion with his army of flying reptiles.
En route to meeting this harbinger of dragon-y doom, Hiccup meets another enigmatic figure: a frightening, masked stranger who walks as easily on four legs as on two. Valka's the mother Hiccup never met, a fellow dragon-rider and a dead-ringer for Jane Goodall who looks after the hundreds of dragons in her care with the help of an “alpha” that blows gorgeously eerie, icy, emerald spikes instead of fireballs.
Valka and Hiccup's instantly joyous reunion is one of the most compelling parent-child relationships to appear on the big screen so far this year. They discover themselves in each other, and that mutual recognition prompts in these two habitually lonely people a sense of finally belonging to someone.
Hiccup and Valka's early moments comprise the most emotionally rich scenes in the film; even a surprisingly heavy event later on doesn't touch as deeply as the bond between mother and son. Disappointingly, then, the trudge toward the inevitable showdown between Hiccup and Drago, as well as the confrontation itself, feel merely customary, their only distinction a silly plotline about brainwashing dragons. Since the sequel shears the wildness off its fire-breathers, it needed to make up for that missing life force with a captivating villain, but Drago is, as Stoick says, just another “man who kills without reason.”
Somewhat refreshingly, Hiccup doesn't just learn the same lesson about being himself that he did in the first film. Rather, the sequel asks him to evolve into a better self, but that message is messily told and ultimately given the short shrift.
If there isn't enough to feel, at least there's a lot to look at. Thanks to the superb 3-D direction by DeBlois, we swoop through the air, whoosh down dragons’ tails, and juuust baaaarely squeeze into small crevices, but still, those experiences are only like being on a really great rollercoaster — they don't mean anything.
The true delight is in the details: the sinewy texture of the leather, the worn metal on the armor, the innocent fuzz and slight, shiny scars on battle-tested arms. Since a third chapter is already scheduled for summer 2016, let's hope DeBlois, who'll direct once again, shows as much talent with the wide brush as he does with his small one.
For a second opinion, check out the video below: