How to Train Your Dragon 2
Hiccup and his dad are not quite on the same page. Again.
Stoick, head of the Isle of Berk's proud, dragon-despising-turned-dragon-embracing Viking clan, is ready to make his son the new chief. But Hiccup's not sure it's an honor he wants. So he spends his days avoiding the leadership dilemma in front of him by mapping the outer reaches of civilization, looking for new lands and new dragons, cataloging everything he discovers.
Hiccup and his night fury dragon, Toothless, along with Hiccup's more-than-just-a-friend Astrid, do indeed find some new dragons … as well as the cruel men hunting them. And just like that, Hiccup's smack in the middle of a brewing war.
Hiccup and Co. are captured by ace dragon trapper Aric. But as haughty as Aric is, his wannabe villainy is nothing compared to the man he captures dragons for: Drago Bloodfist, the self-proclaimed Dragon Master, a cruel tyrant assembling an army of the flying beasts to subjugate the entire world. The biggest of them, called an alpha (think Godzilla!), keeps all the other captured dragons under his hypnotic thrall.
Clearly, intrepid Hiccup must do something.
Between escapes and recaptures and more escapes, Hiccup stumbles into the hidden lair of yet another dragon master, someone with a big alpha dragon of her own—as well as a significant connection to Hiccup's past.
You know what's coming next: the biggest dragon knock-down, drag-out you ever did see.
[Spoilers are contained in this section.]
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about Hiccup embracing his destiny as the young man who would lead Berk. But even more than that, it's a story about family—how it molds our sense of identity and character.
Hiccup couldn't be more different than his father, Stoick, a massive boulder of a man. Waiflike Hiccup's always feared he could never live up to Dad's larger-than-life leadership style. So he's hesitant to embrace his father's call to take over the tribe.
Early on, Stoick responds by trying harder to impart leadership values to Hiccup. "A chief protects his own," Stoick instructs. "No task is too small when it comes to serving your people." It's good stuff.
Things get interesting, however, when Mom shows up. Valka, the woman everyone saw carried away by a dragon 20 years earlier, has been presumed dead. Instead, she took up residence in a paradisiacal enclave of dragons, communicating with them, living with them and caring for those wounded by Drago's men.
Hiccup justifiably wonders why she never returned. The answer is complicated: She'd come to love dragons, and she didn't think her husband could ever change, that he could ever be anything but a dragon slayer. She also wanted "to change the world for all dragons, to make it a better, safer place" she says. When Stoick shows up and is stunned to find his wife still alive, the two work their way toward a poignant, passionate reunion (which includes a tender, beautiful reenactment of the song they sang to each other at the time of their engagement). Then the reconnected family valiantly leads the charge against Drago and his spellbound dragon army.
"Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things," Valka intones.
Valcka fully realizes now that she should have given Stoick another chance before writing him off as someone who was unable to change. And she apologizes to her son for abandoning him: "I'm so sorry, Hiccup. Can we start over? Can you give me another chance?"
Sadly, the family reunion proves to be painfully short-lived, as Stoick sacrificially steps in front of a dragon's fire blast to save someone. At his funeral, Valka says that Stoick always believed his son would be a great leader. She tells Hiccup, "I feared you wouldn't make it, but your father never doubted. … You have the head of a chief and a heart of a dragon." Hiccup replies, "I was so afraid of becoming my dad, mostly because I thought I could never become someone so great, so brave, so selfless." In the end he concludes, "I guess all you can do is try."
Stoick willingly makes that ultimate sacrifice. But Hiccup, Astrid, Toothless and nearly every other good character in this story also lay everything on the line to defend Berk and defeat Drago. Even Valka, who affirms, "The world wants peace … the voice of peace, bit by bit, will change this world," knows that sometimes you must fight for that peace and the freedom that comes with it.
Speaking of Drago, Hiccup is convinced he can show the dastardly villain the error of his ways. Hiccup may be naive, but he can be praised for wanting to give it his best shot. Stoick's wisdom is equally laudable when he says, "Men who kill without reason can't be reasoned with."
A funeral references Valhalla, found in the Norse mythological city of Asgard. We hear this blessing: "May the Valkyries welcome you and lead you through Odin's battlefield." Someone exclaims "Gods help us all." We also hear "Oh my gods."
One woman with a special connection to dragons is shown wearing a tribal mask and acting like a kind of shaman in her ability to influence the great beasts. She herself couches her connection in spiritual terms, saying that a dragon is "not a vicious beast, but an intelligent, gentle creature whose soul reflects my own."
Astrid kisses Hiccup twice, once on the cheek, once on the lips. (During the second smooch, Gobber covers the eyes of a watching child.) A married couple embraces and kisses.
The young female Ruffnut is lustily infatuated with Eret. Slow-motion scenes find her leering at him as he flexes his significant muscles; she exclaims suggestive things like "Take me!" "Oh my!" "Ooh, I like that!" and "Me likey!" Meanwhile, two of Berk's other Vikings vie for her attention.
Amid a heated discussion between a married couple, the onlooking Gobber blurts out, "This is why I never married. This and one other reason." Though the latter phrase could refer to many different thing that have kept Gobber from getting hitched, director Dean DeBlois has said it's a nod to Gobber being gay. (More on this in the review's postscript.)
Violence gets ratcheted up several levels compared to the original film.
Drago's dragons and men launch a siege-like offensive against a dragon sanctuary. Combatants fly wildly about in this sequence, launching all manner of attacks which often culminate in fire and explosions. We don't see many casualties from this combat, but there are exceptions. One character takes a dragon's energy ball blast at point-blank range and is killed. A behemoth alpha dragon is felled by a similarly monstrous beast. Another dragon battle knocks a giant horn off the evil alpha dragon's face.
People repeatedly fall off dragons (and are generally caught or land in water), get blasted by dragon fire and dragon ice (sometimes being encased in the latter), and suffer crash landings, almost always with no lasting ill effect. Several people are dangled in midair by dragons in a threatening manner.
For all of the film's rough-and-tumble playfulness (sheep are routinely catapulted high into the air just for fun, for instance, and one Viking boy talks about being buried alive by a girl who apparently did not reciprocate his crush), Drago is a deadly serious enemy. He has no problem ordering someone's execution, and his eventual all-out assault on a defenseless and dragonless Berk is harrowing. Drago's pirate-like minions have no remorse about making people walk the plank to their doom (a fate that's narrowly avoided).
Human-on-human violence includes several hand-to-hand melees. Dragon trappers are relentless in their pursuit, and they use elaborate gun-fired nets to ensnare their prey. We see Drago remove his prosthetic arm, revealing a shoulder stump from a terrible dragon wound he sustained as a child. And we see the red scars on Eret's chest after it was carved up by Drago as a punishment.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear an unfinished "What the …?" Ruffnut spits, "Son of an Eret." Hiccup yells out that they're going to "kick Drago's ..." Name-calling includes "moron." Given names include Barf and Belch and Snotlout.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
While trying to redeem someone is a good thing, Hiccup foolishly heads into harm's way when he disregards his father's counsel about reforming Drago's crooked heart.
Potty humor includes "soil my britches" and "steaming heap of dragon—duck!" Dragons sniff backsides and regurgitate partially digested fish for others to eat.
Sequels in a beloved franchise tend to take all the things that made the first film a hit and Make Them Bigger. We might label this phenomenon Sequelitis, or maybe Sequelization Syndrome. And that's definitely the case here. There are more dragons, more pyrotechnics, more characters, more intensity, more at stake.
Parents wondering if the sequel is as suitable for young viewers as the original might want to take note of all those mores—while remembering that it's a swath of dragon fire that can burn both ways.
There's also more heroism, for instance. And the story's poignant focus on the power of a father and mother's influence is deeply compelling—as is their marital reconciliation and rekindled love for each other. It's the kind of pro-family storytelling that inspires you to want to be a better, more helpful, more loving member of your own family. Hiccup isn't left to just follow his dreams, rather he learns about responsibility and leadership, as well as the work required to see things through.
But it's the battle scenes that will feel more more than the rest of those mores. Dragons and humans die in intense skirmishes that I found myself mentally comparing to the likes of Godzilla and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Things never get that grim or gory, of course, but the combat is rarely merely cartoony. A few worship-minded references are made to the Norse gods, as well, and wickedness feels palpable in the dark Drago.
All of that makes this a film several degrees more complex in its portrayal of human (and dragon) goodness … as well as in giving us a shadowy glimpse of the opposite. So while How to Train Your Dragon 2 is every bit as entertaining and engaging as its predecessor, it's traded some of the whimsical, childlike wonder for a more nuanced—and at times darker—examination of the clash between good and evil.
A postscript: None of the advance buzz related to How to Train Your Dragon 2 was about the battles. Instead, it flitted around a single line of dialogue that the film's director indicated was an admission that one of Berk's residents was gay.
After the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Dean DeBlois said the "revelation" was an ad lib by voice actor (and late night TV personality) Craig Ferguson: "When we were recording Craig Ferguson, I had written the line, 'This is why I never got married,' and he, as he often does, added it as an ad lib, and he said, 'Yup, Gobber is coming out of the closet.' I think that's a really fun [and] daring move to put in. I love the idea that Gobber is Berk's resident gay."
In a separate interview with Fox News, DeBlois added, "And we all started chuckling and said, That's right, Gobber's coming out in this movie. I just love that about Craig. He's always got just a little extra something for you. I think it's nice. It's progressive, it's honest, and it feels good, so we wanted to keep it."
As noted in this review's "Sexual Content" section, the full line that ended up in the movie's final print is, "This is why I never married. This and one other reason." So it's a statement that likely never would have evoked any sort of discussion about sexuality had DeBlois not said anything about it.
Remarked star Jay Baruchel, who voices Hiccup, "Preaching tolerance in any respect is never a bad thing. I don't know if drawing a massive amount of attention in the middle of a kids' movie is, like, necessarily what you should be doing, but listen, if somebody catches it, then good for them."
And what if families don't catch it and aren't forced to confront this very adult issue in the middle of a kids' movie? (Which many certainly will not.) Well, DeBlois has already hinted that these themes may get explored more in the franchise's next installment. "It does make for an interesting revelation because now, what does that mean," he said, "do we shed a little more light on Gobber's love life?"