When I saw How to Train Your Dragon, it was with little enthusiasm on my part. I figured it would be a breezy hour and a half of my time, and I’d be caught up with DreamWorks’ slate. Boy, was I wrong. Tears were shed and emotions were felt; I just about recommended the film to everyone I knew, told them to get over the title, and buckle in for the ride. When it came to How to Train Your Dragon 2, I was excited as any fan of the first to dive back into this world four years later.
We’re back in the Viking village of Berk, five years after the people and the dragons have made peace, living together and enjoying everyday life. Our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now 20 years old, still enjoying adventures with his dragon companion, Toothless, but also pressured by his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) to take over as Chieftain.
The villain this time around is Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a conqueror hell-bent on destruction with his dragon army, on the hunt for new recruits and land to pillage. Stoick is the lone survivor of a previous encounter with Drago at a Viking chiefs meeting and moves to fortify Berk in preparation for upcoming war. Hiccup, ever the enthusiast and believer, ventures on his own to prevent this despite his father’s objections. Along the way the film’s key new character is introduced in the form of Valka (an always great Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s not-so-dead mother. After being taken away by a dragon, one of many in a raid on Berk, Valka has spent the last 20 years freeing dragons from Drago’s traps and ushering them to an icy island nest run by a Bewilderbeast, a massive alpha dragon with the ability to control all other dragons smaller in size, with the exception of baby dragons.
As Hiccup’s noble intentions to reason with Drago fail, war erupts over the control of Berk and its dragons as Drago reveals that he has his own Bewilderbeast. Tragedy strikes as a controlled Toothless unintentionally kills Stoick when he jumps in to save Hiccup from his attack. The requisite lost hero moment ensues, followed by Hiccup’s triumphant return and victory over Drago; Berk begins the process of healing and repair, Hiccup taking his place as new chieftain.
One of the highlights of the film is the literal transformation of our favorite returning characters. Aging Hiccup and his friends five years gives us something that we don’t always get to see in the never-aging world of animated films and their sequels. Hiccup has a bit of an emo look going for him to represent his young adulthood and denial of his true destiny as Berk’s leader, while girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara) has grown into her previous warrior look with grounded finesse. Even the dragons are sporting an update this time around, maturing as much in the literal sense as they are in their relationships with their handlers.
The animation is breathtaking, with previous co-director Dean DeBlois returning to the chair solo this time around. Water scenes practically leap off of the screen, while ice elements and aerial dragon time takes things to the next level, still holding up today. The care it took to bring the second film on the filmmakers’ terms is evident on all fronts and, while the sequel doesn’t quite measure up to the original, it’s still a pretty darn good ride. Critics loved it, the film won 6 Annie Awards and the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, and was nominated for an Academy Award like its predecessor. So why did some feel like the film was a disappointment at the time?
As with all metrics, pundits went straight to the numbers. How to Train Your Dragon 2 grossed a not-too-shabby $177 million domestically compared to the original’s $217.5 million and, while the sequel’s overall worldwide gross was bigger by $127 million, many expected it to do better at home. Also not helping matters was the previous summer’s juggernaut Despicable Me 2, which grossed $368 million domestically and $970 million worldwide. With all the makings of a sure thing (and little to no animated competition after The Good Dinosaur moved its release date), DreamWorks was publicly pleased with all of the accolades and the respectable box office but, internally, many were no doubt scratching their heads.
Some could argue that the Dragon franchise has real stakes compared to its peers. Hiccup loses a leg and faces near-death in the first movie, with the stakes raised in the sequel when our favorite dragon Toothless kills the hero’s father. Deep stuff compared to the Despicable series where you know nothing bad or long-lasting would really befall any of Gru’s girls. Maybe younger audiences weren’t ready?
Another issue is that of timing. In an age where major studios push as quickly as two years (or even less if production starts before the first film is even released, a la the Twilight Saga model) to get live-action sequels out, animated films need more time to carefully plan out the story, technology, crew, and actors to deliver a quality production. A three-year gap is typical for a hit series to find its next entry in theaters, but in How to Train Your Dragon 2’s case four may have been one too many, possibly alienating its original fan base and not luring in newer ones, in addition to a competitive summer that included the arrival of the Guardians of the Galaxy, more Transformers, Maleficent, Godzilla, and 22 Jump Street as its opening weekend counter-programming.
Or maybe there was brand overload? At this point in time of the film’s release, Cartoon Network had aired 2 seasons of Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk, with Netflix debuting its own new series roughly a year after How to Train Your Dragon 2 opened. While continuations of beloved series are great, they don’t always connect critically, visually, or as popularly with audiences. It’s possible television diluted the strength and quality of the brand for those that had put the franchise in the upper echelons of non-Disney/Pixar animated films.
Whatever the reason, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a strong entry in the DreamWorks canon and deserves a second look for those of you who might have missed it the first time around. With a third film in the works for 2019, you’ll be just in time to get excited for the next chapter of Hiccup and friends.
What are your thoughts on this entry in the DreamWorks Countdown? Are you a fan of the Dragon franchise in al of its incarnations? Sound off in the comments below!
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden