**potential minor spoilers
Dreamworks’ original How To Train Your Dragon was a very simple and beautiful movie. Its simplicity brought out the best in its other aspects. I think often the best “children’s” stories are ones that allow a few central relationships to really develop and shine–an opinion that holds true for me in everything from Adventure Time to Sabriel to Little House on the Prairie. Clutter can be a story-killer.
Unfortunately, How To Train Your Dragon 2 falls prey to the cluttering impulse, piling on multiple stories that, instead of interlacing, just compete for space and attention. Toothless and Hiccup were a perfect YA pairing, and complicating that unnecessarily is just asking for trouble. Here their friendship is crowded by a new nefarious villain, a mysterious stranger from Hiccup’s past, Hiccup’s relationship with his father, some huge dragons with special powers, a major character death, and a random dashing Viking voiced by Jon Snow. Just typing that out was kind of exhausting. I miss the days of Toothless frolicking by the pond.
But clutter is pretty forgivable in an era of movie audiences willing to watch not one but FIVE Transformers films (…). Stranger than this unnecessary complexity is HTTYD2’s shift in tone. Put simply, the first HTTYD was ultimately about turning away from binary solutions (kill/be killed) and using teamwork/love/friendship to work out new solutions. The second film muddles that at the end. Sure, Toothless and Hiccup remain a tight-knit team. But their increased physical dependency in this film makes it harder to think of them as separate entities, leaving Hiccup’s final battle more like a virtuostic performance and an independent show of bravura than anything else. Without spoiling too much: Hiccup at one point makes a strident declaration about “alpha males” in his journey toward becoming one. Which made me miss the old Hiccup, who understood that there are (perhaps better) alternatives to being an “alpha male,” which involve empathy and compassion rather than just battle skill. The idea of the “alpha male” is a strange one on which to end the movie, especially after the first film worked so hard to build a world in which the alpha male’s kill/be killed mindset is no longer the most prized. It’s also not necessarily the most productive lesson to leave with the film’s younger audience. Why does there have to be an alpha male at all? I get that the “Viking” setting might provide a flimsy “historical” cover for the alpha male mindset, but the film hardly stays true to historical accuracy in other respects–so that it uses the “Vikings” as justification when convenient, but doesn’t quite construct the world according to the premise.
I’m not mad I spent the money, and it’s always good to see more Toothless (the dragons, as always, steal the show–with a special nod to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim monsters featured in this one). But ultimately I walked away from this one feeling cheated, somehow, as if the world of Berk and Toothless had been tinged with something a little unpleasant. I could watch the first one again and again (I did earlier today, because who needs an excuse to see more dragons?), but I’m not sure I would revisit the new Berk.