Built as either a shot to attain a loftier reputation or as penance for afflicting four goddamned “Shrek” movies upon the populace (perhaps both), Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 finds the red-headed stepchild studio attempting to go full Pixar and widen the emotional scope of what has been, to date, probably their strongest effort, but also biting off more than it can chew, turning out a finished product that implies a creative team that knows the music, but nonetheless struggles to nail the rhythm.
Five years have passed since unfortunately-named protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) mastered the once thought impossible art of dragon-training and led the charge to save his Viking homeland from, well, a bigger dragon. Instead of enjoying the luxurious life of heroes, however, he and his dragon Toothless have been recreationally seeking out uncharted lands to quench their thirst for adventure. Unfortunately for them, though, the responsibilities of adulthood loom on the horizon as Hiccup’s inheriting of the village leader throne closes in. Meanwhile, a new threat named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou, doing what he does best) reveals himself, and plans to use his methods of dragon-training through force as a means to amass a dragon army with which to conquer the world.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 seeks to build upon the foundation of the initial installment, “How to Train Your Dragon,” by introducing more intimate narrative themes such as coping with the looming anxieties of being an adult, long-lost family, and even loss of a loved one, but it lacks the conviction to see any of them through to a fully satisfying dramatic fruition. You see, for all of its grandiose ambitions at achieving family film greatness the likes of which its rival studio reached in its heyday, Dreamworks are still at least half working in babysitter movie mode (i.e., making a movie that functions as a means for parents to get their noisy kids to shut the hell up for a couple hours). While they seem to have learned their lesson with fart and bodily fluid gags, thank God, they still aren’t above filling every five minute mark (sometimes fewer) with Toothless making funny faces or doing a little physical comedy routine in the background. While harmless and even cute on its own, it speaks to Dreamworks’ seeming mandate to pander to their target audience by effectively jingling keys in front of their face, lest their attention drift.
Nowhere is this more frustrating than the times when it undercuts the film’s sincere, if frequently mishandled, attempts at genuine pathos. The scenes detailing Hiccup’s growing relationship with his lost mother and some darker late-in-the-game moments are welcome, but besides hitting dramatic beats almost as according to a pre-set stopwatch, any growing sense of conflict or tone is habitually punctured thanks to self-conscious bids at keeping the kiddies invested. Maintaining tonal cohesion between comic relief and more serious subject matter in a family film is a tricky tight rope, granted, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 makes the mistake of assuming that the key to balance is constantly fluctuating between two extremes, never quite deciding concretely just what direction it wants to go in.
Visually, the film is positively gorgeous with a vibrant color palette accentuating a diverse and creative roster of dragon designs that are thrilling to watch in action and damn near breathtaking to behold in tandem with the massive scale of the more climactic action scenes. That is, when these scenes are kept to a distance. When they opt to zero in on the actions of a single character, as they often do, the grand spectacle is dropped for a fairly routine focus on run-of-the-mill heroics that predictably exist to manifest the conclusion of a painfully telegraphed arc that not even John Powell’s triumphant score can lend gravitas to.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is cute and diverting enough to entertain the tykes (hell, what isn’t?), but is unfortunately burdened with glimpses of something more that exacerbate just how banal the rest of it is. Routinely dipping its hand into more dangerous waters only to retract it immediately afterward, it is a film with its artistic and monetary interests at war with one another just as fiercely as the two monolithic alpha-dragons in one of its numerous third-act set pieces.