It isn’t that sequels are a bad thing (but sometimes they are), or even that this sequel is particularly bad, but the incessant and rampant franchising in Hollywood is something that rears its head again for How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the inevitable sequel that will follow. I have to admit, I am a huge fan of the first film, what with it’s unlikely, if not clichéd protagonist, the unrelenting dragon fueled fun, and even a strong message at its core. However, things change and writer-director Dean DeBlois, half of the creative crew from the first film, fails to capture the same magic he did originally. To his defense though, DeBlois did try to create a bigger world at large equipped with dragon trappers, mysterious dragon riders, and even an aptly named tyrant in the villain Drago Bludvist, voiced by Djimon Hounsou.
The film opens with a Dragon Race, which involves the riders catching sheep and tossing them in to an appropriately colored basket, that which Hiccup and Toothless are noticeably absent from. This scene is interlaced with snippets of the two exploring the land beyond Berk and making a world map; we also learn that Stoik (Gerard Butler), Hiccup’s father and Village Chief, intends to step down and pass the horned helmet onto his son. The story from here develops very thinly and too quickly. Following the race Astrid, America Ferrara, catches up with Hiccup and they see smoke on the horizon which leads them to a group of down-and-out Dragon Trappers led by the boastful Eret son of Eret, voiced by Kit Harrington: Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. Through this encounter we are quick to learn that Eret’s leader the feared Drago Bludvist is creating a dragon army for reasons that aren’t really ever explained, other than the obvious. As it would turn out Bludvist is a man from Stoik’s past and is considered to be violent and untrustworthy. Someone who lacks a conscience and kills without reason. Stoik is quick to try to convince Hiccup that attempting to reason with Drago is an impossible task. This proves to be echoed by the mysterious dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) who lives in a dragon sanctuary that was built by the icy breath of one of apparently few remaining Alphas. Valka also has close ties to the plot as she reveals mysteries about Hiccup’s past.
Without spoiling too much, Drago is able to control the dragons in his army through intimidation and the use of an Alpha dragon that he has come to enslave. This isn’t really ever explained either and the plot from here on out is again very thin. Most of the movie has the audience moving from vast ice formations that house Valka and back to Berk without giving any real insight into this large world that the Vikings are beginning to explore. Instead of world building or creating a more inspired conflict, we are left with just another villain who is seemingly evil because … well, he just is. The conflict also starts before there is even a buildup, but that is actually where the film starts coming through. The action and the animation work so well together that they provide a very fluid, albeit a bit repetitive – you can only bank through the air and shoot a fireball so many times, action sequence that keeps you awake and rooting for Hiccup and Toothless. This battle does set up a very tragic moment, but also builds up to the next set piece: the Battle at Berk.
Now, I do think there are a few places the movie goes wrong and it suffers for that. Much of the light-hearted fun, other than a pointless teenish romance, is stripped out and replaced with large battle scenes and a more violent theme. By all accounts Drago has reduced his dragons to slaves, and chooses to attack those who do not agree, ideologically, with him: the Vikings at Berk. Maybe that is a bit stuffy, sure, but it’s still there. HtTYD2 attempts to sell you with well-designed battles, flexing the impressive animation from DreamWorks, and tragedy; juxtaposed to the successful combination of triumph and friendship in the previous film.