Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Yesterday I took two youngsters to see the sequel to Dreamwork’s How To Train Your Dragon, a film that treads a familiar path with its use of a gawky, awkward teen who is a misunderstood outcast in his society until he gains or discovers something wonderful that makes him even more of a misunderstood outcast until said discovery ends up saving everyone’s lives and proving the error of society's ways.

And yet the original film rose above its internal clichés to be an incredibly moving tale of A Boy and His X; something that can be attributed to its blend of beautiful animation, John Powell's stunning score (never underestimate how much music can elevate a story), and its portrayal of Toothless the dragon, a creature that has the mannerisms of a cat, the temperament of a dog, the utility of a horse, and the bonus gift of flight.

Move over Hedwig and Nemo, dragons are now in demand as the world's most desirable exotic pet.

Plus, there’s not a lot that can go wrong with the premise of Vikings versus Dragons. It’s so simple yet so ingenious that it’s a wonder someone didn’t come up with it sooner.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 understands some basic truths about sequels: they have to enlarge their horizons, delve deeper into characterization and expand on the world-building – but at the same time it’s important not to go too overboard. For if there was a weakness to this film, it was that it simply tries to pack too much into its limited run-time.

Spoilers below...

Things are looking good for Berk: the community has embraced the art of dragon-training and now enjoys having scaly companions as their steeds, pets, convenient furnaces and entertainment. Hiccup is still inventing, creating and exploring alongside Toothless, with his current project charting a map of the surrounding islands.

If there’s one thing he’s unsure about, it’s that his father Stoick is dropping anvil-sized hints about him being next-in-line for the position of chief. Hiccup tells Astrid: “I’m not sure what my thing is.” It’s the standard expression of self-doubt in any average young male protagonist, even though it’s fairly obvious what Hiccup’s thing is – to be a dragon trainer, an inventor, an explorer and an educator. I mean, duh right?

But establishing Hiccup's desire to find his path in life at least sets up the internal flow of the movie. And as it happens, three life-changing events occur over the film’s duration that sets Hiccup on a new course.

Firstly, while out dragon-riding, Hiccup and Astrid discover that dragons are being captured and tamed through force of will by a vicious war-lord called Drago, intent on using them to dominate other Viking tribes. Secondly, Hiccup discovers that his mother Valka, believed dead for the past twenty years, is actually alive and well and living amongst dragons as their protector. And thirdly, Stoick dies in defence of Hiccup’s life, leaving a vacancy for chief wide open.

Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff to get through in what is ostensibly a children’s film, and unfortunately, the attempt to squeeze all of it into one hundred and two minutes means that all three threads feel short-changed to some degree or other. They could have handled two, but three? It’s just too much.

Since I don’t want to get too caught up in the first storyline, I’ll take the lazy option and use bullet points.

  • The animation is beautiful, whether it be the eerie spikes of green ice, the kaleidoscope of multi-coloured dragons, or what can only be described as performance art when Valka half-climbs, half-dances across the wings and backs of dragons that are in flight.  

  • Um, did no one stop to think that portraying the irredeemable villain as a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks voiced by Djimon Hounsou was maybe not such a good idea? As a character he’s one-note, and I’m struggling to remember what actually became of him in the film. Did he die? Fly away? Seriously, I can’t recall.

  • On the other hand, Eret ended up being a far more interesting addition. I didn’t place Kit Harrington’s voice until I got home and looked it up, but wow – what a great role for him! His shift from antagonist to ally was elegantly done, and his acceptance of Stoick’s dragon as his own surprisingly moving.

  • The portrayal of Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship is an overlooked gem in this film. I’m not much of a shipper at the best of times, but there’s something about these two that just clicks. In the first film Astrid was less a stereotype of the “tough girl” than most people gave her credit for: she was competitive and driven and observant enough to realize that Hiccup was up to something long before the rest of the Vikings caught on, and even though their romance follows the familiar “geeky boy gets the hot chick” cliché, Astrid is at least given the dignity of not initially being in a relationship with Jonah Hill’s “big jerk” character.

  • And they’re just adorable together – all the little touches and teasing, the sense that they can communicate without words, their physical familiarity ... basically it’s nice to get a depiction of a healthy, happy relationship that isn’t the focus of the film, but an important part of its backdrop.

  • But as an aside, something that interests me about Astrid is how closely she resembles Tigress from Dreamwork’s other animated franchise Kung Fu Panda: both are extremely talented young women, both hard-workers when it comes to honing their skills, both are the top of their class ... and both have to concede second place to the nerdy/geeky male protagonist. It’s almost like the film-makers are reassuring the girls in the audience that they are totally the best at everything... but they’re still not quite as important as the dudes. This isn’t a complaint, not exactly – just an observation (though if it happens a third time, it’s definitely gonna become a complaint).

  • Though the heart of the franchise will always be Toothless and Hiccup, it felt a little secondary this time around, no doubt due to the overload of characters and other relationship vying for screen-time. The likes of Fishsticks, Snotlout, Ruffnut and Tuffnut are similarly underused.

Okay, so let’s talk about Valka. In the first movie Hiccup’s mother is clearly intended to be dead, as part of the requisite Missing Parent Syndrome that nearly every significant young hero has to deal with. In attempting to retcon this and introduce her to the proceedings, the writers need to come up with a good reason as to why she’s been missing for the past twenty years.

Turns out that Valka was always something of a dragon apologist, with a flashback depicting her begging Stoick and the other Vikings to make peace with dragons instead of constantly fighting them. Okay, I smell a plot-hole here. Have the writers forgotten that the name of their franchise is “how to TRAIN your dragon”? Because the dragons at the beginning of the first movie were wild animals. Very destructive wild animals. What exactly did Valka want the Vikings to do to prevent them from making off with all their flocks and burning their houses down?

Because the way I see it, Hiccup was the one who fulfilled all her ambitions of dragon/Viking unity and he did so by being – you know – not somewhere else.

Still, Valka is an interesting character in regards to the choices she’s made. Just as it’s possible to be a good chief but a bad parent, it’s also possible to be a bad mother and a good person. People may well blanch at that, and I certainly concede that parenthood is the biggest responsibility any human being will ever have to undertake (which requires that you not walk – or in this case, fly – away from it), but Valka is a woman who has apparently ranked her responsibility to dragons over the one she has to her family.

Hiccup’s first meeting with his mother is strikingly done, with Valka appearing in silence above the clouds, and it’s touching to see how Hiccup recognises himself in his mother in regards to their shared love for dragons, as is his excitement when he realizes she has much to teach him, knowing things even he doesn’t about Toothless.

And even though Stoick wooing Valka back by singing her their old song sounds hideously cheesy on paper, it actually works when you see it on screen. It’s downright tear-jerking.

But aren’t Hiccup and Stoick even mildly angry that Valka up and abandoned them for twenty years? Does Valka feel any guilt that she deserted them in favour of her version of Gorillas in the Mist? Isn’t Hiccup and Stoick’s immediate acceptance of a woman they haven’t seen in years ring a little false? Don’t all these characters deserve a chance to re-establish themselves as a family unit?

For just as the family begin to iron themselves out, the plot with Drago re-emerges and Stoick sacrifices himself to save Hiccup. Boom. Just like that.

When Stoick was killed I was left blinking for a few seconds, unsure what had happened or whether he was really gone. Though his Viking funeral is moving, it’s over and done with so quickly that you can’t properly register the loss - and hey, Drago is back again to speed things up toward the climax.

The A-plot is ultimately resolved by Toothless staring down the Alpha Dragon and wresting from him the position of alpha, and the film concludes with Hiccup becoming the new chief of Berk in his father’s place. Basically the two of them are rendered the most powerful dragon/human duo in the vicinity. It’s ... a bit much.

The problem is, having established that Hiccup is searching for his place in life, the film doesn’t really do anything interesting with this question – at least not in their answer to it. He just becomes the chief, and to be frank, I don’t think Hiccup is particularly suited to the role. As I said earlier, his strengths lie in education and exploration, not leadership. And that’s not a bad thing. Hollywood is obsessed with leaders (reluctant ones of course, because being ambitious makes you evil) that inherit the power and prestige of their parents. I had hoped this franchise would attempt something a little different.

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve recently read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and realized that Edmund’s character development is based on his ability to ultimately defer to Peter’s authority, but I thought that Hiccup’s characterization throughout this film was suggesting that he operated better as a helpmate and an idea's man than as a leader in his own right.

Hiccup talking Toothless out of his hypnotism could have stayed intact, but why not have Valka (with Hiccup’s encouragement) be the one to subdue the Alpha Dragon considering she’s the one who has spent the last twenty years learning their secrets? And why not let Astrid be the next chief of Berk considering the film consistently depicts her making split-second decisions, delivering commands to her fellow Vikings, effectively taking matters into her own hands, and (most importantly) being interested in the job. Honestly, from the moment Stoick yells: “that’s my future daughter in law!” in the opening sequence I was convinced that this was where the story was going.

Deferring power and responsibility to someone else can be presented as a very mature and brave thing to do, and as Hiccup’s “thing” was obviously based in exploration, inventions, freedom and learning, the conclusion feels as though he’s been shoehorned into a role that doesn’t really suit him, and that he never really wanted.

It feels too trite, too inevitable, and I can’t help but feel that if this was a Pixar film, they would have taken the road less travelled.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, only that the sequel didn’t manage to rise above some of its inherent clichés the way the original did. It’s in the little details that I found enjoyment: the imaginative beauty of the dragons, the inherent fun of the premise, the consistency of the world-building, and the unexpected realization that I’m a huge Hiccup/Astrid shipper.

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