This isn’t really a review of How to Train Your Dragon 2. It’s more of a sigh of disappointment.

Since even my close friends are disagreeing with me on this one, you may be happier if you stick with the reviews I shared in my previous post about this movie.

Disclaimer: As I’ve said before, I’m suffering from serious burnout when it comes to frenzied battle scenes and us-versus-them fantasy spectacle. So I went into How to Train Your Dragon 2 with some concern. I enjoyed the first film in this franchise very much, and I’d read enough high praise to hope that the sequel might be something special.

And it is, for a while.

The first half is loaded with humor, imagination, wonderful character moments, subtle humor, and some strong mythic storytelling. It kindles themes about stewardship, leadership, and other -ships.

My favorite moments in the film take place when the dragons are playing together like dogs. I’d rather watch an hour-long featurette on dragons at play than watch what the film serves up in the last half-hour.

And I agree with those who have celebrated the film’s central romance as remarkably affecting and human. The epic love story of Stoick and Valka is the stuff of a much better movie — I wanted to follow the story of their rekindled marriage for another hour.

There’s also something called The Bewilderbeast which, in its early appearances, is one of the most magnificent, mysterious, magisterial (and other modifiers beginning with “m”) creatures I have ever seen on the big screen. I was as enthralled by the sight of it as I’ve been by any of the glorious creatures in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and it heightened my sense that this movie was turning into something truly extraordinary.

But all of that gravity was, for this moviegoer, squandered as the film succumbed to its need to deliver dragon-war mayhem.

“Son, it’s a sequel. Didn’t you expect to have parental revelations?”

Yes, I’m sorry to report that Dragon 2 falls victim to two summer movie illnesses that have become epidemic.

First, it devolves into “White Hat versus Black Hat” battle scenes — which is a shame. There’s so much worthwhile storytelling happening that it doesn’t even need a villain.

Second, it develops a case of Sequel-itis: It’s bigger than the first one. Louder than the first one. It contains major revelations about the hero’s parents (which are, I admit, handled better here than usual). It is overloaded with battle scenes. It shows off increasingly uninteresting special-effects advances. And ultimately, it chooses More over Better. Action swamps story, and leaves Huge Questions unanswered.

It’s especially frustrating, after such a strong first half, that the story devolves into typical Summer Blockbuster chaos, arriving at a bone-jarring dead end with the worst rallying speech I’ve ever heard. It amounts to “Our enemies are relentless and crazy, but you know what? SO ARE WE!” Wow. Go team.

The Bewilderbeast … which actually inspires awe until it catches Godzilla fever.

Is anyone else bored sick of those Peter Jackson moments when someone walks out onto a balcony and looks down to see that a vast enemy force (the size of which the earlier scenes never even hinted was possible) has arrived and is swarming like ants on the doorstep with impossible abruptness?

My heart sank when that moment came because, well… from there on, we know just what the energy of the rest of the movie will feel like. The wonderfully unique, character-based moments of the first half of the film are pretty much finished. The film’s conclusion seems to forget that this was a film about Hiccup’s revelations about his parentage, or about what it takes to be a leader. Instead, the screen turns busy with explosions. We get another addition to the trend of Massive Monsters Smashing Each Other and Every Large Structure Around Them. And the film’s climactic moment feels like it’s been cloned straight out of The Iron Giant (or, reaching back even farther, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

One of the movie’s most breathtakingly beautiful encounters.

And it all raps up with the typical back-slapping and “Yeah, we sure showed them!”  The last minute of the film is especially misguided. The heroes seem to conclude that this is the real lesson: Whoever controls the Monsters of Mass Destruction… wins!

When the film was over, my friend Danny remarked, “Well, that’s like the official movie of the NRA.” I see what he means. The film seems to suggest that massive firepower — like the firepower of dragons — is dangerous when it’s controlled by “bad people,” but it’s just fine when it’s entrusted to the right people. But before the movie’s over, the hero delivers a speech that undermines his claims to wisdom and superiority. He says something like this: “Our enemies are crazy and relentless. But so are we! They can try, but they’ll never take away our guns dragons!”

This is not the lesson that the world needs right now.

Okay, so the dragons in this movie aren’t meant to represent guns. I know that. But the assertion that the power to unleash massive devastation is perfectly cool — and even fun to play with — if it’s in the hands of a “good person” … that’s a dubious proposition at best.

Maybe in the movies you can have whole nations of “good people” who can happily and safely live with that kind of risk. But it doesn’t seem to be working out for us here in the real world, where the people who are quickest to declare their trustworthiness often turn out to be the least trustworthy of all. One of the best things Gandalf did in The Lord of the Rings was reject the idea that destructive power is a good thing in the hands of a good man like him. When offered the ring, he rejected it. He knew that even in the hands of a good man, destructive power can still do a world of damage.

Whether or not you like my friend’s NRA reference, surely you hear the weakness in Hiccup’s concluding remarks. In his own story, the power he has actually begun to reveal is the power of love — not the power of dragons. But he doesn’t seem to understand that. Maybe we just need to wait around for him to wise up. Maybe that would be a good focus for the inevitable third movie in the series. It would certainly increase the chances of that movie being the best in the series.

 

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