“This is Berk,” Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) announced five years ago. Twice, in fact, at the beginning and the end of How to Train Your Dragon. That kind of “This is me” opening narration was already a cliché at the time, but by now it’s practically an epidemic.
Five years later, Hiccup is back to tell us again, “This is Berk.” Two more times.
Memo to the filmmakers: We know it’s Berk. The first film was a hit, and the sequel, it’s safe to say, will be a monster hit. (There’s no real competition; How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the only major animated release all summer, not counting the sequel to DisneyToons’ Planes. Pixar has nothing all year.) Please, for the inevitable third film, let’s have something different. Six Jay Baruchel “This is Berk” monologues is more than anyone needs.
The first film related how Hiccup changed his village’s way of life forever, winning the love of the girl of his dreams, the approval of his authoritarian father and the respect of everyone in town — not to mention the loyalty of his magnificent new draconian friend, Toothless.
Where do you go from there?
Onward and outward, obviously. A bigger story, wider horizons, more characters, new revelations and, of course, more and bigger dragons. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has good ideas about where it needs to go, plotwise.
I’m glad to see Hiccup hasn’t been resting on his laurels; he’s still learning, exploring, inventing. Packing nifty dragon-inspired inventions, soaring the skies in sleek leather duds with trusty Toothless, he’s almost a young dragon himself, as fearless as he was once diffident.
One thing gives him pause: He doesn’t like the idea of his chieftain father Stoick (Gerard Butler) naming Hiccup his successor. Hiccup’s not sure being chief is his thing, or even what “his thing” is (though it’s pretty obvious what he is: a pioneer, innovator and educator).
Other than that, Hiccup never hesitates, never doubts himself. He takes bold, decisive action; he is even reckless. Does he learn any hard lessons? Realize he’s made mistakes and must live with the consequences? Stagger under the weight of daunting challenges or shocking revelations?
Not so much.
In fact, none of the established characters are obliged to change in any fundamental way. As with the Ice Age sequels, situations may change, and characters may come and go, but the central characters and relationships forged in the first film have become static. Is everyone else as tired as I am of referring to the Toy Story sequels for how to do this right?
Instead, How to Train Your Dragon 2 tries for emotional power by, first, introducing an important a new character with great significance for Hiccup and, second, ushering another important character off the stage. Neither gambit is handled with much emotional intelligence or ambition; on the contrary.
A character is revealed to have done something unthinkable, with incalculable, irrevocable consequences; then, confronted years later, simply asks, “Can you ever forgive me? Can we start over?” A reasonable response, in context, might be, “Are you insane? What have you been thinking all this time? ‘Start over?’ Perhaps we can start somewhere, but no, ‘starting over’ isn’t an option. That ship has sailed. Can we go back to ‘What were you thinking?’” But nothing like this is said.
That’s as far as I can go without spoilers, but more must be said — and the trailers reveal the salient point, which can be spelled out here without really spoiling how the movie plays out.
When my wife, Suz, first saw the trailers, her one comment was, “If Hiccup’s mother is still alive, they’d better have a good reason why she hasn’t been around for all this time.” Well, they don’t.
It turns out that Valka (Cate Blanchett), carried off by dragons when Hiccup was but a wee bairn, wound up becoming a sort of Dian Fossey matriarch to a dragon sanctuary where dragons live under her care and protection. So, she abandoned her husband and infant son and never returned … why? Because, she says, she thought Stoick would never change, that is, give up his implacable war on dragons.
Let’s review. In the first film, Hiccup discovered that the reason dragons routinely raided the village, carried off sheep and burned houses to the ground was that they were in thrall to an immense mega-dragon, the queen of the nest, who demanded tribute. A flashback shows Valka trying to restrain Stoick from resisting a dragon raid. What exactly did she want him to do? Let the dragons take all the sheep they wanted?
Hiccup is agog to learn that the mother he never knew is alive, but it doesn’t rock his world in any practical way. Stoick, too, though entranced by Valka’s return as if from the dead, is unsettlingly unconflicted about her voluntary absence.
Neither husband nor son needs to take time to absorb or process this: to think through the impact of her 20-year hiatus from family life, to decide how they feel about things. Stoick and Valka’s reunion is certainly a touching depiction of marital love, once you get past the cognitive dissonance of Valka’s actions. But how do you get past something like that?
Then there’s another major turning point with even more potential to rock Hiccup’s world: an irrevocable, life-changing transition that has famously been powerfully dealt with in other animated films (to name them would give it away). I have no objection to how it goes down or how it’s handled — only with the filmmakers’ failure to explore its impact on Hiccup.
In a more emotionally attuned film, perhaps Hiccup might have lost his confidence and courage for a time. Instead of immediately doing what needed to be done, he could have retreated into the insecurity of childhood. Flashbacks here could have done more justice to a relationship in the first film than we’ve seen until now.
Perhaps Valka or Astrid would try to help Hiccup recover his sense of direction. Perhaps they would even step up and do for the time being what Hiccup was unable to do. (It would have given the women something to do. They’re disappointingly little used — as is one of the first film’s best characters, the tough old trainer Gobber. He’s reduced to comic relief, including an oblique suggestion that he might be gay.)
Alternatively, perhaps Hiccup could have gone down a dark path for a time: succumbed to selfishness, anger, thirst for revenge. Then he could have struggled to accept the need for forgiveness. Either reaction would make sense; either would give Hiccup an emotional arc and a complexity that he lacks here.
Then there’s the villain: a monster of a man named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is the antithesis of Valka, a cruel dragon-master who enslaves dragons — ostensibly to protect mankind from their greatest enemy, though it’s pretty clear from the outset that he’s a would-be conqueror amassing an army.
Drago serves the same dramatic function that the monstrous dragon queen served in the original: He’s the scapegoat on which the whole burden of evil is placed so that the rest of the characters can be benign and friendly and ultimately live in harmony.
I appreciated that, in the first film, while most dragons turned out to be gentle if treated gently, there was still room for monsters, or at least one monster. In the sequel, the only monster is a man of war, and even the most monstrous dragon does monstrous things only because it is in thrall to Drago.
The irony is striking: The villain is scarily named “Drago” — but actual dragons, as far as we see here, aren’t scary unless bad men make them so. That the villain has dreadlocks, darker skin and is voiced by an African-American actor doesn’t make me like it any better.
Of course, the animation is gorgeous. That’s something. The flight sequences are as exhilarating as in the original, and far more elaborate. The varied settings offer some nice atmospherics, from an immense, misty forest to the abode of a titanic, placid dragon that feels almost like a creature from a Miyazaki film.
I like a remark from Stoick that he thought he’d have to die before being reunited with Valka and a fallen character being given a cremation at sea with explicitly religious references to Valhalla and the gods of Norse mythology. (On the other hand, Valka speaks of that huge dragon almost as if he were a sort of god.)
Comic relief from the supporting cast, including Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig, isn’t great, but it’s good enough. Like the film as a whole: I wouldn’t call it good, but it’s good enough. I saw it with most of our kids, and it was a pleasant outing.
Yet at the climax, as Hiccup launches into his fourth “This is Berk” monologue, Baruchel raises the energy level of his line readings, straining for a rousing, heroic finish that’s well outside his range. Baruchel’s is not the voice you hire for rousing and heroic. Was Hiccup right to resist being named his father’s successor? Did anyone consider whether Astrid might have been a better choice?
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense animated fantasy violence; some scary images; the death of a major character; complex family situations; brief mildly risqué humor; a few Norse polytheistic references. Might be too much for sensitive youngsters.