If you ask me, the time from around 2008 to 2012 was, for the most part, a golden age for the Dreamworks animation studio, the likes of which they haven't had before or since. Three of my all-time favorites of theirs came out around then, those being the first Kung Fu Panda in 2008, Rise of the Guardians in 2012, and How to Train Your Dragon in 2010.
After the release of Guardians, I feel that they've been stumbling a bit. The Croods, while genuinely funny and nice to look at, lacked a lot of the heart and emotion I felt the three films mentioned earlier had in spades, and both Turbo and Mr. Peabody & Sherman were straight-up forgettable at best. Now, four years after the original, we have the first follow-up to one of their greatest films in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and I'm going to be perfectly honest with my thoughts. Although this is overall a quality film, and is better than every one of the recent ones I just mentioned, I couldn't help but walk away slightly disappointed from it. Maybe it's because I walked in with super-high expectations based on the rave reviews nearly everyone else is giving it, and maybe it's also because the original fired on all cylinders, but for all the things this movie does right (Of which there are plenty), I just don't think it matched the original overall.
In a refreshing and bold move, this sequel takes place five years after the original, meaning lead character Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his friends have noticeably aged from gangly teenagers to maturing young adults. The original film followed Hiccup's tribe of Vikings in the village of Berk, as his father, village chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), led them in a never-ending war against ferocious wild dragons. After Hiccup ended up befriending and taming a rare dragon he named Toothless, he eventually figured out that the beasts weren't vicious at heart, and eventually led Berk to co-exist in peace with them.
One of the best things about How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that it feels like a natural evolution and expansion of the world and characters the first film established, which isn't something every sequel pulls off successfully. Hiccup has gone from being an outcast to wrestling with the idea of Stoick passing on the mantle of chief to him, and is also making use of Toothless's flying to explore and chart the world outside of Berk.
Obviously, the film needs a conflict, and it doesn't take long for Hiccup to discover trappers capturing hordes of dragons to give to Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a sinister man with plans to control dragons through fear and intimidation for his own gain. Soon after, Hiccup makes another shocking discovery when he finds that his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), is not dead after all, but has been watching over a massive colony of dragons. From there, Hiccup and his friends from Berk have to figure out how to face the impending threat of Drago's army and save Berk and the rest of the world from a possible war.
The film opens wonderfully, with a lighthearted scene showcasing Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and the others making use of their dragon companions to play an exciting airborne sport involving sheep, followed up by a downright beautiful scene where Hiccup and Toothless soar across an ocean landscape. But when the actual plot kicked in, I started feeling that something was a little off, and it took a bit for me to figure out what it was.
Because there are numerous new characters and plot elements to introduce, the film has to dedicate a lot of time to plot exposition and backstories. The original film didn't need to devote a lot of time to that after clearly establishing its setup in the first five minutes. As a result, I felt the pacing was smoother, more natural, and more engaging compared to this follow-up.
Though I was excited walking into the film at the prospect of a genuine villain, which is something the original lacked for the most part, I felt that Drago could have been handled better. He doesn't actually make a proper appearance until the movie's halfway over, and despite being genuinely vicious and intimidating, doesn't have much else to him. Compare that to Pitch from Rise of the Guardians, who I still think is the best villain I've ever seen in a Dreamworks animated film, and had plenty of screen time, personality, and motivation, and you'll see that Drago could have been so much more.
Now that I've gotten my major gripes out of the way, I should probably list the reasons that I still enjoyed this movie. Just like the original, the art style, animation, and sense of scale is great. There are a huge amount of creative dragon designs, the characters are expressive and belivably animated, and John Powell's soundtrack is once again wonderful.
Also, thankfully, I think that once the film was done establishing all of its setup and exposition, it really blossomed into its own in the second half. The scenes where Stoick reunites and catches up with Valka are genuinely moving, the action is elaborate and exciting, and the resolution is satisfying.
Also, later in the story, the film is not afraid to head into darker and sadder territory that the original didn't touch upon. I'd recommend trying to avoid coverage online until you see it, as it might be very easy to accidentally discover the big spoiler that everyone's already talking about, and it's not something that you want the impact lessened for. I'll just say that while you can expect a traditional happy ending, this story is not without its tragic moments.
To sum up my thoughts, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a very good film, but unlike the original, I don't think it's a truly great one. Considering how tremendously positive the overall critical reception has been for it so far, I think there's a good chance that most audiences will have less issues with the movie than I did. Dreamworks has already confirmed a third entry in the series for 2016, and I'm looking forward to it. I just have a feeling that for me, the original will always be the best.