Thursday, July 10, 2014

OVP: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
Stars: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington
Director: Dean DeBlois
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Animated Feature Film)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Like most of America, I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked the initial How to Train Your Dragon.  I'm definitely more in the Pixar camp with my animation, and Dreamworks has been a bit of a disappointment through the years for me.  I didn't care for anything in the Madagascar or Shrek franchises, and at the time of this movie, my favorite of their franchises (Kung Fu Panda) hadn't been seen yet.

That being said, the first How to Train Your Dragon was a delight.  Sure, it occasionally veered into abject silliness (the side characters in Dreamworks films rarely resonate in the way they do with Disney films in that there are usually too many of them and they are all one-note), but the action sequences and the animation were breathtaking.  I left that film really thankful that I had used 3-D (one of the few films I've ever made such a claim on) and curious if and when a sequel would arrive.

(Spoilers Ahead) Like all good animated films that make a boatload of money (you just know Olaf's getting a spinoff), Dragon did indeed make its sequel, which came out a few weeks ago to critical praise and tepid box office.  The film picks up largely where we had last left off-the dragons are now friends of the citizens of Berk, and all seems to be well and good in the land of winged creatures.  Of course, this can't continue (it's a movie, for crying out loud-we need some conflict), and we soon have an evil villain named Drago (Hounsou) trying to trap the dragons and use them for an army for himself.  All-the-while, Hiccup (Baruchel) is fighting with his father (Butler) about what his destiny should be, and his father insists that he needs to prepare to become the new chief.  It's classic animated film fodder-the fight between father and son over what the son's destiny should be.

The problems I have with the film are not aesthetic, or really related to the animation at all (I'll issue the verdict right now-I didn't like this as well as the first film).  The animation continues to be on par with the previous film-the flights are gorgeous, the fight scenes epic and wildly felt, and the actual sea of dragons are a delicious bevy of visual jokes and gorgeous hues.  Never before has Dreamworks come so close to getting a distinctive color palette in the way that almost all Pixar films manage to do, and I applaud them for this advancement.  If this were a silent film, quite frankly, it would be splendid.

But the film is not a silent movie, and the plot has some serious issues.  For starters, the movie tries to be too-many things at once, and I truly hated the way that Hiccup's relationship with his long lost mother (Blanchett) was treated.  She becomes sort of a mythic figure in the first half of the film, and then he discovers her and she's so much like him.  It would have been oddly refreshing to see an animated film that centers on the relationship between a mother and her son (I'm having trouble coming up with one-help me out in the comments), but this entire relationship takes a sharp backseat when (I wasn't kidding about those spoilers) Hiccup's father dies, shifting his mother into a background character once again and the entire film is reframed as a father/son tale.  Quite frankly, while I'm all for animated films handling heavier themes in the way of classic Disney (Bambi's mother would never die today), this seemed to be such a bizarre twist in this adventure that I felt like it deserved a different movie.

I also truly hated the ending of the film (yes, I'm going to trot out hate here)-I'm not as over the "chosen one" story as everyone else on the collective internet seems to be (it's been a standard aspect of literature and storytelling for centuries), but Toothless randomly becoming the new Alpha Dragon seems to be ridiculously over-the-top.  Quite frankly, did we even need an Alpha Dragon?  We know the villain isn't going to win-did we have to introduce this ludicrous new element to the story that essentially makes all of the dragons zombies rather than complicated creatures in their own right?  This felt tagged on, and like bad storytelling, and will hurt future stories in the franchise.

The more I think about the film, quite frankly, the more bitter the taste in my mouth gets.  The vocal work is all right (I loved Kit Harington as Eret the most, and hope he gets more of a role in the inevitable sequel), but nothing seems to stand out in this film the way the first movie clearly did.  I left it not wanting more and reveling in what I just saw, but questioning whether the first film was as good as I thought at the time.  That's the damaging effect of a bad sequel-it makes you rethink your love of the first film, which is clearly not the point of a franchise.

Those are my thoughts on How to Train Your Dragon 2-what are yours?  Did you agree that this was a disappointment, or are you pro-Dragon Part Deux?  Do you think there will be a sequel?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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