Sunday, June 29, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

The other night I went to the cinema to see the sequel to one of my favourite animated films of recent years, Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon – a film I rate amongst my all-time favourite animated movies, alongside The Incredibles; Monsters, Inc.; Despicable Me and Up1. The combination of great story, excellent animation, humour and a superb cast – Jay Baruchel in particular as Hiccup2 – actually took me by surprise; I was not expecting it to be as good as it was.

While I'm certainly aware of the tendencies of the vast majority of sequels to be disappointing – and no small number to be truly dreadful; check out my blog post on the topic here - I remained optimistic that this would be one of the (rare) good ones.

Sadly, I was wrong. It's not something I can describe without major spoilers – beyond noting that the problems are almost entirely plot-related; everything else about the film is as good as or better than the first – so if you don't want to have key plot twists revealed, stop reading now.

Here be dragons. Er, spoilers. Dragon spoilers!

It started well; five years after the first film the inhabitants of Berk are happily co-existing with the now domesticated dragons, and Hiccup and his dragon Toothless are busily mapping the local area and having a bunch of fun. But then they come across a gang who are trapping dragons for a man named Drago Bludvist, who the learn is assembling a dragon army.

Hiccup tells his father Stoic - the chief - about this, and Stoic recounts how, years ago, Drago killed a bunch of vikings at a gathering, and sets about locking down the village to prepare for an attack.

Nothing really wrong with that. But after that things go a little bit...awry.

Firstly, Hiccup gets captured by a mysterious, non-speaking dragonrider and taken to a lair where it's revealed that the dragonrider is...his mother, Valka, who he believed to have had died when he was a baby, nearly twenty years ago; she was carried off by a dragon (which is why Stoic thought she was dead) and carried, unharmed, to its lair where she befriended it - and, eventually, a whole host of other dragons.

Why she didn't return was really only glossed over. I can come up with no small number of hypotheses, but a) none of those are really satisfying and b) it's not my job, it's the writers'.

So, that's problem number 1.

Problem number 2 is Drago – or, more accurately, why no-one seems able to deal with him. At one point he's attacked by Stoic, who he fends off - singlehandedly - without any difficulty at all. Later, it's revealed that he's only got one arm; the other was lost, presumably, to a dragon.

Are we supposed to accept that Stoic, called 'The Vast' - shown, in the story, to be one of the biggest, strongest and most capable of the Vikings - is unable to defeat A ONE-ARMED MAN? Stoic didn't even appear to try very hard, despite the fact that it was obvious that Drago was controlling the dragons who were threatening his family and the young Berk dragonriders and their dragons.

Even after Stoic was elsewhere saving Valka, no-one seemed to consider that attacking him might be a good idea. At one point Hiccup and Toothless are confronting him and at no point does Hiccup attempt to use any of the numerous weapons he has about his person to subdue him or have his incredibly fast, powerful dragon gut him like a fish or blast him with his lethal breath weapon.

Obviously I'm aware this is (ostensibly) a children's film, and you have to tone down the violence – but that doesn't excuse this pitiful writing. They could have come up with any number of ways to not make the characters – who are Vikings, remember; violence was pretty much a way of life for them – appear to unbelievably incompetent.

Really, it was a huge struggle for me to not stand up in the cinema and shout "CAN SOMEONE PLEASE JUST BURY A FUCKING AXE IN HIS HEAD!?". Even if you wanted to make it child-friendly, someone could at least attempt to – or perhaps suggest that someone else – knock him the fuck out.

That was probably the biggest flaw, and it was a big enough one that it pretty much ruined the movie for me. There were other minors things that also bothered me – the lack of focus on Hiccup's relationship with Astrid and the incredible softening of the dragons in general; they went from being terrifying, deadly monsters in the first film to being little more than the equivalent of flying puppies - but those I could have coped with.

So yeah, very disappointed. They could have done so much better, even with the same basic plot. They're already talking a third film; here's hoping it's thought through (by people considering the needs of people who notice things like profound plot holes) a lot more than this one was.

1You'll notice the absence of Shrek and Toy Story 1-3; while I like Shrek and all the Toy Story films (and those that others rate highly – Finding Nemo, The Lion King and WALL-E), they didn't resonate with me as much as those I listed above. That in and of itself might be worth a blog post someday, but not today.
2My favourite line in the film – "And now the spinning. Thanks for nothing, you useless reptile." – was apparently an ad-lib on his part, which they left in.

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