WARNING: The premise of this film contains unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.
Since the fall of the Red Death, the Vikings of Berk have made peace with the dragons forced to do its bidding, and they live together in harmony. In just five years, the dragons have radically altered the culture of the village. Every Viking has now bonded with a dragon, and they even stage competitions to see who can capture more sheep. During one such competition, Hiccup, the son of the village chieftain Stoick the Vast, secretly leaves with his own dragon, Toothless, to explore uncharted lands.
How to Train Your Dragon had a gently subversive narrative in how it turned the basic fantasy plot on its head. Rather than exterminate the dragons plaguing the land, Hiccup found a way to befriend them. Despite being a classical arc of an unlikely outcast rising above the low expectations of their peers and becoming a hero, how Hiccup underwent it was certainly unique. He managed to bring to light the full scope of the conflict and the Vikings had a change of heart. Despite this, the greatest irony of the first film is that the empathetic Hiccup ended up being the only Viking to actually kill a dragon onscreen.
Though Hiccup has doubtlessly grown a lot since those days, he is shown to have not fully discarded his insecurities. As his girlfriend, Astrid, correctly observes, part of what drives him to fly out into these unexplored lands with Toothless is his father pressuring him to become the new chieftain. Despite all he has accomplished, he wonders if he is ready for such a task. For his entire life, Hiccup has tried to gain his father’s approval by felling a dragon. Through means he never would’ve imagined, he gained it, and he now has no idea where to go from there.
If the ending of How to Train Your Dragon resulted in an idyllic land in which humans and dragons live in harmony, the premise upon which its sequel operates is the inevitable reality check. As they investigate a charred forest, Hiccup and Astrid find the remains of a fortress and are accosted by a group of self-proclaimed dragon-trappers led by one Eret. They are working for a ruthless warlord named Drago Bludvist. Drago will stop at nothing to amass an army of dragons and conquer the world. Despite Eret’s confidence, the two manage to escape easily enough, and warn Stoick and the villagers of Berk. Stoick immediately realizes the gravity of the situation and tells everyone to prepare for battle. Drago had once offered to protect Stoick and the other chiefs in his company protection from the dragons. When they refused, Drago ordered his dragons to incinerate everyone present. Only Stoick survived. Even knowing of Drago’s horrific actions, Hiccup, staying true to himself, flies off in search of him, hoping to resolve things peacefully.
Although viewers returning from the original film have a point of reference going into its sequel, the writers still find many curveballs to throw at them. The first one is when Hiccup finds himself in the company of a figure covered head to toe in armor. They seem particularly knowledgeable about dragons, for they effortlessly manage to take down Hiccup and Toothless. This sequence could trick a first-time viewer into believing the armored figure is Drago, though they quickly reveal themselves to be much more benevolent than their antagonistic appearance would suggest. The figure takes off her helmet and introduces herself as Valka – Hiccup’s long-lost mother. Just like her son, she couldn’t bring herself to kill dragons despite being carried off by one during a raid shortly after he was born.
She has spent the last twenty years rescuing dragons from the trappers, and bringing them to a sanctuary hidden from Drago’s forces. This is where you learn the toll Drago’s war efforts have had on these creatures. Some have been blinded while others lost limbs. Given the context and sheer malice, it could be seen as an allegory for animal abuse. The nest was created by a gigantic alpha dragon called a Bewilderbeast. Due to its status, it is able to control smaller dragons. The previous film established that the dragons have beelike qualities in how they brought the villagers’ livestock to appease it. This alpha dragon is far more benevolent though, acting as a kind, just ruler rather than a tyrant.
In one of the film’s most heartwarming scenes, Stoick, having tracked Hiccup down with Gobber, discovers his wife is alive. These warm emotions are suddenly dashed when Drago’s forces assault the nest. A largescale battle between the riders of Berk, Valka’s dragons, and Drago’s armada ensues. Things appear to be going well for the forces of good when the Bewilderbeast joins the fray, but Drago reveals he has one under his own control. The two colossal dragons battle to determine which will become the new alpha. Drago’s Bewilderbeast is the victor.
With it as the new alpha, Drago has complete control over all the adult dragons present by proxy – including Toothless. Hiccup attempts to persuade Drago to stop any further bloodshed, but the warlord merely orders Toothless to attack his friend. Stoick pushes Hiccup away at the last minute, saving him from the dragon’s plasma blast. Alas, the Night Fury’s attack is said to never miss its target, and this is no exception. Taking the brunt of Toothless’s blast, Stoick perishes on the battlefield. Even if he wasn’t in control of his actions, Hiccup is furious at Toothless for what he has done and drives him away. Drago takes Toothless for himself, and his armada departs for Berk with the intent to capture the dragons there.
I commend Mr. DeBlois for going in such a daring direction with this film. This is a character the audience got the time to know in the original film and the animated show that followed it. After getting to know these characters over the course of several episodes, this installment straight up kills off one of them. This isn’t a false Disney-style death either – it’s the real deal. It was a transgressive development film to have Hiccup’s idealistic method of dealing with Drago come to a dead stop when he actually met the warlord. It makes the case that some people are just too far gone to be reasoned with, which is rather cynical theme for a contemporary Western animated feature.
Moreover, many films have an obligatory break-up between the main character and their best friend, which can ruin the suspension of disbelief if it occurs in a sequel. “Why would these characters who have known each other for a significant length of time break up over a minor slight?” is a question I think we’ve all asked ourselves at some point. As it is, Toothless killing Stoick at Drago’s behest was an amazingly bleak and effective way to justify this common trope.
Admittedly, even if I have a lot of praise for this film, it isn’t without its downsides. Though these story beats are well-thought-out, the final act is extremely rushed. The amount of time between Drago leaving for Berk and Hiccup gaining his metaphorical second wind from a pep talk is astoundingly short. The riders of Berk depart for their village on the backs of baby dragons, and the justification is a little too serendipitous. Being babies, they don’t listen to adults. While it makes a degree of sense, it’s also tonally jarring hearing what amounts to a joke mere minutes after a tragic death scene. While this is going on, Eret defects to the heroes’ side, though there was so little build-up to it that it seems to come out of nowhere. Granted, I could fully understand not wanting to work for Drago, but the film doesn’t give it a proper setup or payoff.
Unfortunately, as a result of the film’s compact third act, Hiccup reconciling with Toothless takes practically no time at all after they meet up again. It’s to the point where you wonder why Toothless wasn’t able to resist the Bewilderbeast’s influence right away. My guess is that he wouldn’t have had any practice blocking its influence beforehand, leaving him vulnerable when he first encountered it. However, because of the film’s rapid pacing, it’s exceedingly difficult to prove or disprove this theory.
Lastly, I have to comment that the battle sequences aren’t exactly great. The metaphorical camera cuts away to obscure any violence, and the final battle ends with Toothless challenging the Bewilderbeast to be the new alpha and winning. After he breaks the Bewilderbeast’s left tusk, it retreats underwater with Drago riding it. Whether or not it or Drago survived is unclear because the editing makes it difficult to tell what happened. I have little doubt the ending in which Hiccup is made the new chieftain of Berk is a triumphant note on which to end the film, but I don’t think it was a moment entirely earned.
Although How to Train Your Dragon 2 received a fair amount of critical acclaim, it did leave fans divided. Depending on who you ask, it’s either an incredibly brave animated feature not afraid to shy away from surprisingly dark themes or a rushed mess devoid of meaningful character development. I find both camps to be right to some extent. I give the writers a lot of credit for covering heavy topics such as war and the immense suffering that results from it, but at the end of the day, these story beats don’t have a chance to settle. As a result, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is ultimately a good film marred by questionable execution. I can easily envision giving fans of the original and the television series getting a lot of it, and Hiccup, Toothless, and Astrid are as likeable as ever. Regardless, you have to go into this film with the realization that, for better or worse, it offers a thematically different experience from its predecessor.
Final Score: 6/10