How to Train Your Dragon is one of those animated movies (they tend to be animated, anyway) where people really get crazy when they hear you haven't seen it. I know because up until a couple days ago I had never watched the film, nor did I have any plans to fix this egregious gap in my film knowledge. I'm just not a huge mark for animated films. Even when I really enjoy them, I never quite fall in love, save for The Iron Giant or something truly monumental like that.
But the time came for someone at this website to review How To Train Your Dragon 2, and that someone ended up being me. Not seeing a movie to annoy cartoon fans is one thing, but it seemed particularly shameful to review a sequel without having seen the first. So I took the plunge and watched How to Train Your Dragon.
And it was really good. Not worth the fervor perhaps, but a genuinely fun, exciting, and moving film. The secret ingredient to the movie was its simplicity. By focusing on a novel dragon angle and really committing to that world, the film was able to tell a pretty standard and reliable story without any unnecessary digressions or slow points. It is a very small, yet near perfect film.
I bring all this up as a contrast to How to Train Your Dragon 2, which trades all that simplicity for something decidedly more epic and ambitious. In doing so, it loses that perfection. But that doesn't mean it's a failure. I'm honestly not sure which movie I prefer and have a feeling that decision will differ greatly from person to person. I will say that when How to Train Your Dragon 2 is at its best, it blows away anything I saw in the first movie by a very large margin. But it is rarely at its best.
The film begins in the same town seen in the first movie except now people love their dragons. Everyone lives in peace and harmony, life is good, and everything is perfect.
That's good for them but bad for story, so the plot kicks off as Hiccup flies further and further away from home in an attempt to map his world (this is a strange element to introduce as it only highlights how little we know about this planet's geography and population - something that never mattered in the first film). Through his exploration, he runs into a crew of rogues who hunt dragons, a dragon sanctuary run by a mystical warrior, and an evil guy who wants to build an army of dragons to help him exterminate all dragons everywhere. It's busy.
It's also not structured by template, so especially in the first half, mostly stupid viewers like me really have no idea what's going to happen next or even what kind of story the film wants to tell. This is somewhat thrilling but also makes the film feel unwieldy when it's at its most vulnerable. Things tighten up significantly in the second half, however, as the film focuses a bit less on story and more on wowing us with some seriously amazing dragon imagery.
If this weren't a computer animated film where all the dragons look like colorful toys, How to Train Your Dragon 2 would be a film with serious Kaiju bonafides. There are a couple massive dragons in the mix, and while they are great to just look at, we also get to see them fight. Even better, director Dean DeBlois constructs a handful of amazing shots where their monumental battle rages in the background of more human-based conflicts in the foreground. As far as modern monster movie tropes go, this is genuinely exciting and masterful stuff. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a movie that really strives to make these dragons - even the smaller ones when in large groups - majestic, mythical, and awe inspiring, and when working on this level, it is absolutely incredible. (But up close they do still look like toys.)
For that alone I recommend this movie, though I doubt its larger story (I don't see any point in telling you everything that happens) will inspire the same near unanimous love the first film earned. I'll even demand that viewers who might be interested get out there now and see it on the big screen because some of its generous scope will likely get lost at home. Not that it's all spectacle. There is a remarkably moving human story regarding Hiccup's family to enjoy once things finally get settled down. How to Train Your Dragon 2 marks yet another defense to my theory that family unity in the face of conflict is so so so much more interesting than just regular old family conflict, and I definitely appreciate that.
But is it a good movie? That's mostly up to you. Sometimes a swing to the fences falls short, but still gets further than playing it safe. And it's definitely not a failure. But it doesn't have that warm magic offered by the original either. You'll just have to figure out if you want an awesome one night stand, or if you want to marry the nun (in both cases you are doing it with dragons, btw).