Friday, June 13, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2: Not as much spark

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for fantasy action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.13.14

Catching dragon-discharged lightning in a bottle is hard enough just once; expecting to replicate such a feat is darn near impossible.

Although Hiccup's father wants him to assume the role of village chief, the young Viking
would much rather explore distant lands astride his beloved dragon, Toothless.
Unfortunately, one of those journeys reveals a very, very nasty villain who'd love to
destroy Hiccup and everybody else in his village.
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was, to my taste, a perfect film: a clever and luxurious expansion of the first of Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s novels, with an engaging blend of well structured characters, rich vocal talent and — most crucially — a plot that focused quietly on a boy and his rather unusual “dog,” then built to a suspenseful, exciting and unexpectedly poignant conclusion.

One could not help being touched, as well, by the authentic behavior granted Toothless, our young hero’s rare Night Fury dragon: the ever-watchful gaze, the playful curiosity, the protective instincts and the pet-like eagerness to please. The animators did a rare and wondrous thing, by concocting an animated creature — and a mythical one, at that — far more lifelike than any others brought to the big screen, dating all the way back to the gentle woodland critters of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

All of which gave director/scripter Dean DeBlois very large reptilian shoes to fill, with this long-awaited sequel.

We can be saddened, then — although likely not surprised — that Dragon 2 doesn’t live up to its predecessor. DeBlois screwed up the formula, and he has nobody to blame but himself.

1992’s Home Alone 2 remains the textbook case of ill-advised sophomore slump. In an astonishing example of short-sightedness, everybody assumed that the key to success lay in enhancing the slapstick nonsense involving the “wet bandits” who bedeviled little Kevin McCallister, thereby overlooking all the poignant, gently tender kid-on-his-own moments that made the original’s high-comedy final act so funny in contrast. The sequel, essentially nothing but burlesque, fell completely flat.

Successful tone and pacing derive from highs and lows: a balance between the many, many elements that combine to produce an engaging narrative. As my grandmother often warned, not even ice cream sundaes could withstand becoming a steady diet; all too quickly, they’d become bland. And even, well, boring.

That’s more or less what has happened, with Dragon 2. As for why, I’m always suspicious when a filmmaker’s colleagues get jettisoned en route to a sequel. On the first Dragon, DeBlois shared directing and scripting credit with Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, The Croods), with additional writing assists from William Davies and Adam F. Goldberg. Collaboratively, they fashioned a heartwarming tale that was long on interactions between our misfit Viking hero, Hiccup, and his gruff father, Stoick; along with Hiccup’s unlikely attraction to young Viking goddess Astrid; and of course the highs and lows that accompanied Hiccup’s efforts to win the trust of the wild, wounded Toothless.

Then, and only then, did that first film pull out all the stops for its exciting third act.

Well, DeBlois now wears both directing and scripting hats all by himself, and he clearly has forgotten what made the first film so successful. This sequel is top-heavy with action scenes, peril toward characters human and reptilian, and endless sequences of Hiccup and his young dragonrider friends guiding their mounts through cloudy skies.

Over and over and over. Was there no better way to fill this 102-minute film?

Then, too, there’s the matter of grim tidings. While 2010’s Dragon had its somber moments, none were serious enough to overwhelm the essentially larkish and good-natured tone. This made sense, in a narrative littered with silly-looking dragons identified as Gronckles, Zipplebacks and Deadly Nadders.

This sequel, however, turns downright depressing: not just once, but twice, and it’s hard to decide which calamity is more tragic or, arguably, less justified.

Five years have passed since the events depicted in the first film, during which Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel, at his quavering best) and his devoted dragon, Toothless, have flown farther and farther afield, seeking new lands and fresh dragons to befriend. Back home, in the precariously perched oceanside village of Berk, dragons have become fully integrated as pets, protectors and sports mounts, the latter typified by good-natured racing contests between Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller).

Truth be told, Hiccup has taken every excuse to avoid a serious father/son chat with Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), who believes the time has come to pass the mantle of village chief. Hiccup doesn’t want to be chief, believing himself wholly unqualified for such responsibilities.

Matters are happier with Astrid, lovingly affianced to Hiccup and absolutely certain that he can rise to whatever occasion fate might have in store. That turns out to be a tall order, given the calamities that arrive in quick succession. Bad enough that Hiccup and Astrid encounter an aggressive trapper — Eret, son of Eret (Kit Harington, well recognized, even by voice, as Jon Snow in TV’s Game of Thrones) — who tries to capture Toothless and Astrid’s mount, Stormfly.

But Eret is merely the tip of the iceberg — literally — because his activities are, in part, a self-defensive response to a mysterious cloaked “dragon whisperer” who controls winged reptiles large, small and ginormous: the latter being an ice-spewing Bewilderbeast that has lain waste to many of these far-flung villages.

Or are these appearances deceiving? Eret’s rugged charm notwithstanding — the vulgar Ruffnut immediately swoons in his presence — he answers to the much more foreboding Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a vile warmonger immediately recognized as this story’s alpha villain. As Hiccup learns, when relaying all the information to Stoick, Drago was responsible, 20 years back, for an unprovoked dragon assault that destroyed numerous villages and claimed the lives of their chieftains and — most particularly — Stoick’s wife and Hiccup’s mother.

Stoick responds to this news of Drago’s renewed activities with grim resolve; if war is coming again, Berk’s inhabitants will meet this challenge. Hiccup, a pacifist at heart, is horrified; he determines, naively, to try for “peace for our time” by playing Neville Chamberlain during an audience with this power-mad Norse Hitler.

Things ... don’t go as Hiccup hopes.

On the other hand, he also is confronted with a surprise of an entirely different sort: the most intriguing element within DeBlois’ otherwise routine and predictable storyline.

This Viking chest-pounding aside, Toothless once again emerges as the most interesting, delightful and fully realized character. The ebon-black dragon’s mannerisms continue to charm, particularly during his playful romps with Hiccup, and also when this sensitive Night Fury — well aware that he is the last of his kind — finds himself attracted to a much larger, and oddly owl-like dragon dubbed Cloud Jumper. Their “courtship behavior” is quite droll.

It’s nice to have the entire voice cast return; Baruchel remains ideally cast as the uncertain young hero, forever outsized and intimidated by Butler’s stern and crusty take on Stoick. Hill, Mintz-Plasse, Wiig and Miller are well utilized as numb-nuts comic relief, although the funniest lines go to Craig Ferguson, who also returns as Gobber, Berk’s blacksmith and armorer, and Stoick’s right-hand man (which is appropriate, since Gobber's long-lost left hand gets replaced by an ever-amusing series of weapon-like appliances).

Hounsou’s Drago is appropriately chilling, while Harington’s stalwart delivery quickly suggests that, initial appearances to the contrary, Eret probably isn’t as “bad” as he seems.

The film also is enhanced by the lyrical vocal presence of another newcomer whose identity shall not be revealed here, in order to preserve a key surprise.

The story is laced with scores of new dragons, from the massive Bewilderbeast to Rumblehorns, Stormcutters, infant Scuttle Claws and many others that swoop through the wildly cluttered landscape. As was the case with 2010’s Dragon, this sequel’s animators cram all sorts of sight gags and other bits of dragon business into the background: far too much to absorb during a single viewing.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is by no means a bad film; I’m sure families and fans of Cowell’s books will find plenty to enjoy. DeBlois and editor John K. Carr keep things moving — the redundant flying sequences notwithstanding — and the story includes a much-appreciated subtext for wildlife conservation.

All that said, however, this one’s quite a letdown from its predecessor. Indeed, Dragon 2 feels more like the lesser trio of short mini-sequels and the ongoing TV series that began in 2012, on the Cartoon Network. The brand has been diluted, the first film’s all-essential magic spread much too thin ... and this big-screen sequel does nothing to reverse that trend.

More’s the pity.

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