Can exceptional animation, known characters, and Cate Blanchett eclipse a tired storyline, forced relationships, and weak character rationales? In a word? No.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Heir to the throne – a weakling and laughing stock of his small hamlet turned village legend and protector – cannot quite live up to his father’s expectations. When the young hero discovers a new danger threatening the existence of everyone he loves and everything for which he’s labored, no one will listen to him. Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve seen something similar in every. story. featuring. a. prince or princess. in. the. last. fifty. years?
Young Dragon Master Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) returns in How to Train Your Dragon 2, along with his best friend — and dragon — Toothless, father Stoick (Gerard Butler), and fiancé Astrid (America Ferrera). Years after Hiccup revolutionized the way Berkians viewed dragons, the small island town has turned into a mecca for the flying beasts. Chief Stoick is proud of his son and chomping at the bit to announce him as his successor; however, that’s just not Hiccup. He’s an adventurer, a dragon master, flying the unknown territory and mapping the new world with his loyal dragon Toothless. His fiancé Astrid flies alongside her man advising him to take the honor of being Chief and make his father proud. When Hiccup and Astrid discover a new threat to their way of life served by the mysterious warrior Drago, Stoick is adamant that Berk prepare for war. Hiccup disagrees and flies off to negotiate with Drago. When he collides with another enigmatic dragon rider along the way, details of his past are turned on their head, and everything Hiccup has long known about himself comes into question.
Early in the film, I was a bit confused. I had read reviews touting Dragon as a masterpiece. As of the date of publishing for this review, the rottentomatoes.com score for this film stands at a “Certified Fresh” rating of 92%. While I found the animation breathtaking – I’ll get to that in a minute – the film was all flash and very little substance. I love animated films…I worship at the altar of Pixar, and I am greatly in awe of how far animation has come since the glory of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But here’s the thing, you cannot just draw or animate average material and expect to fool the general public into thinking they’re seeing something innovative…or maybe you can, judging by that score.
As I said, I was confused. The dialogue – full of exposition – is a train wreck, every character dumbing down their advanced emotions into elementary words. Yes, I know this is a film meant for children, but we live in the age of superior offerings like The Lego Movie, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 3, Tangled, etc. that choose to give audiences the benefit of the doubt that they can understand what’s going on without sentences like: “What you’re searching for is in here…” while a character points to another’s heart. Gag me. And there is a lot of “Hey, I have to tell you something! Just stop what you’re doing and listen to me! Hey, hey, hey…” and the other character…”I don’t have time, right now. Tell me later…” If it is so important, why don’t you just say what you have to say? In the time it takes to relate: “I have to tell you something,” you can say, “Hey! Someone is coming for our dragons!”
Now, that animation…is ….just…STUNNING. In one particular scene, Stoick discovers the love of his life is still breathing (something revealed in the trailer and early on in the film, so I am not really spoiling anything here). The emotion on Stoick’s animated face, and that of his wife Valka (Cate Blanchett) are so real, so intricate you hardly feel you are watching a cartoon. The veins in one’s hands just under the skin are visible; small hairs, freckles, moisture in the eyes – attentions to detail are so pronounced. This film is a revelation, a triumph of visual cinema…but again, that’s all flash. I wish, wholeheartedly, that the package contained something of substance.
I will say, also, that once you realize all of the characters’ pigheaded selfishness is the point, that the film is about small sacrifices, that Hiccup is discovering the dichotomy of what makes him who he is and that we can only reach success by compromise, the film reaches its stride. In fact, the moments before the climax are actually quite moving and interesting. Unfortunately, the climax is mean-spirited, gratuitously violent, and ultimately unsatisfying.
The villain is an amalgam of legend and stereotype. Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) wants to rule the world by forcing dragons to bend to his will, apparently, but given very little screentime, his motivations and grudges against the main characters are so weakly explained, he remains a boogeyman who we frankly care very little for. This is a film about war marketed to children. In the age of violent video games and images of recent horrors flooding the internet, of course this material would be deemed acceptable to the younger crowd. My seven year-old son spent the last half of the film in tears, though he steadfastly wanted to finish it to make sure it all ended up okay for Hiccup and Toothless. When I was a wee girl, I vividly remember Bambi’s mom being shot, but that was a fleeting moment in a film about a deer, a rabbit, and a Flower. Typically, even modern animated films that deal with dark subject matter juxtapose their bleaker moments with humor, but this film is utterly humorless with limited jokes and very few laughs. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is brimming with shots of dead characters, destruction, violence against animals, and implements of torture. You know, FOR KIDS!
Not appropriate for children under the age of 10.
Animation Grade: A+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Overall Film Grade: C-. Mediocre, at best. It annoys me greatly that critics and audiences alike accept middling fare as “excellent” just because it is superior to other films in theatres. The only way to improve cinema on the whole is to reject worn-out plotlines, rebel against subpar dialogue, and promote more films that take a chance or offer something fresh and exciting. Maleficent –- while again, not great –- at least tried something new, and it was blasted by critics for it. If you’re looking for a marvelous family treat this week, save $$ by skipping Dragon and rent or BUY the Lego Movie instead. And then, tell your friends.