I was hesitant to see this film at first. I garner a suspicion for sequels that emerge out of the first film’s box office success and make bank on the loyalty of its fans, but I took a leap of faith. Admittedly, the push was the affordable tickets, but I was pleasantly surprised and my reluctance turned into an enthused enjoyment of the animated film. How to Train Your Dragon is an action-packed, poignant coming-of-age tale that features the endearing characters from the first film but grander in scope; it has more (and larger) dragons, a deranged villain, and additional characters who only add to the fantastic, majestic Viking world of this film.
The second installment of How To Train Your Dragon takes place 5 years after the first. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now an adolescent 20-year-old going through a quarter-life crisis, complete with staggering pressure and expectations from parents and society, overwhelming decisions, and a search for purpose in life.
His father, Stoick the Vast, the Chieftain of the Viking tribe, is pressuring him to become the new leader, but Hiccup, overwhelmed by the responsibility, instead chases different ambitions. He’s more interested in his cartography project, exploring uncharted territory and mapping out the land around him- a pastime that conveniently places him away from his father’s expectations.
During one of his escapades surveying unfamiliar land, he, along with his companion Toothless and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara), are attacked by dragon hunters working for the villain of the film, Drago Bludvista. This is a man who seeks total world domination and destruction through the creation of a dragon army. What follows is a captivating narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat while maintaining its humor. You find yourself rooting for the good guys along with the kids in the theater.
An impressive feat of a children’s movie, it’s a film that imparts lessons about some of life’s heavy themes (death, self-identity, family relationships) in an emotionally effective yet entertaining way. It’s not just empty action with the sole purpose of evoking giggles among young audiences – it truly has substance. This film is ripe with comedy that made the first film so entertaining but Hiccup’s struggle to forge his identity and the complexity of the father-son relationship seems realistic and adds depth to the action-packed film.
I don’t mean to discount the easy narratives and laughs found in children’s movies, as I am partial to the goofy, lighthearted films of my childhood. However, there were movies like Lion King that played a role in my development as a person. It introduced me to death and loss; I had never experienced the death of a loved one and was shattered when Simba’s fragile frame ineffectively tried to awaken his dead father. It taught me lessons, even if subliminally, about moving on and continuing to live one’s life after loss. Essentially, I learned what it meant to grow up. I kept thinking about children’s films like Lion King as I watched How To Train Your Dragon 2, as they both took the time to delve into the human experience.
This film can also be extolled for its progressive treatment of gender. This is a movie for sons and daughters, an inclusive experience that departs from gender archetypes. Men and women are on equal ground. Frozen did it when they rejected the old model of love: boy meets girl, girl falls in love, boy sweeps girl away. Brave did it when they voided the Taming of the Shrew storyline by letting the female character pursue her own desires. Instead of solving the issue of the “wayward woman” with marriage, new traditions were created and antiquated perspectives change.
And now, How To Train Your Dragon 2 does it. The female characters are refreshingly authentic and push back against the stereotypical wilting, damsel in distress female characters of older animated films. The women join in on the action without hesitation and refuse to sit back when the threat of the psychotic Drago Bludvista is imminent. I want to see children’s films continue the trend of crushing outdated stereotypes and creating stories with substance.
This sequel does what many fail to do: it progresses. We see that the characters we grew to love have evolved from the previous film. The film’s examination of father/son relationships, finding one’s purpose in life, and dealing with death aren’t revolutionary- it’s been done before. But How To Train Your Dragon 2 presents a fresh, rejuvenating take on the coming-of-age genre, with a plot energized by progressive and complex characters and relationships. I can’t say that it joins the beloved ranks of timeless classics such as Lion King, Toy Story, and Monsters Inc., but it comes pretty darn close.