Saturday, July 25, 2015

How To Train Your Dragon 2 review

According to IMDB, this movie has the same director (well, one of the directors anyway) as the first one. Which is very puzzling to me since it seems to have no idea what made the first one so good. In fact it almost seemed to be going out of it's way to destroy the legacy of the original.

Let's start with the positives. The animation is much improved over the first. There were some beautiful landscapes and gorgeous scenes that did a great job of capturing the feeling of the joy of flight. It was fun to see all the characters again and there was some really great chemistry between them at times.

So what didn't I like about it? Well, I'll go into details in the spoilers section, but I think my biggest issue was the message. The message of the first movie was to try to see past surface differences and old grudges; to bridge boundaries; to break cycles of violence and find peace. It's about forging friendships and learning to accept each other even if we initially appear to be different.

In contrast, the message that I get from the sequel is "you have to protect your group against others, even if it requires violence". The phrase that they keep quoting is in fact "a chief protects his own". In other word, "it's us versus them". OK, look, I don't object to the basic idea that we have to be ready to fight to protect ourselves and those we care about, but the message of this movie is basically THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THE FIRST ONE!

And you know what? I like the first movie's message more. I mean, "a chief protecting his own" is exactly what Stoick was doing in the first film, and it pretty much claimed he was in the wrong. If Hiccup had been all "a chief protects his own" in the original, he would have just killed Toothless at the start and there wouldn't have been any movie.

Furthermore, to a lesser extent there was also a message in the original about about solving problems by carefully studying them and trying to find intelligent solutions rather than attacking them with brute force, as exemplified by how Hiccup studies the dragons and is able to pass various challenges using his knowledge of them rather than by attacking them with weapons. In this one, they solve all the problems in the end by just being physically more powerful.

For example (spoiler warning for this paragraph), in the first movie they defeat a giant dragon by using teamwork and figuring out and exploiting it's weaknesses thanks to their understanding of dragons. In this one they defeat a giant dragon by Toothless just standing on a rock and spitting fireballs at it until it gives up. Because he's just inherently superior apparently. The hell was the point of that?

Another thing that I took issue to was that in the first movie Hiccup was shown as being different from everyone around him, and suffering because of that, but eventually he and his village learned that being different wasn't a bad thing, that he didn't need to be ashamed of being different. Again, that's a good message. But in this movie, they basically take that away from him. I'll leave the details to the spoiler section, but suffice to say it felt like downright character assassination to me.

What's more, the story felt like a mess to me. It's rather hard to pinpoint why other to say that there were a lot of characters running back and forth without achieving anything or really contributing significantly to the story. Many characters felt marginalized; all of the kids, including even Astrid, have a lot of screen time but don't actually contribute at all to the story: with the single exception of mentioning Hiccup and Berk to Drago, you could take out all the scenes featuring the kids and it wouldn't affect the plot at all. In fact, to me, even Hiccup seemed to be little more than an observer for most of the film, and Toothless was actually very passive until right at the end.

To be honest, I feel like the first movie was made because there was a story that the creators wanted to tell, while this one felt like is was made because... somebody needed their next paycheck. It just doesn't seem to have a prevailing theme or direction or message; it's just about some stuff that happened to some guys we know.

Overall, I give it a 6/10. It's... not a terrible movie on it's own, in fact if the first had never existed I probably would have enjoyed this a fair deal, it's just that it's so much stupider and less meaningful that the original that I was severely disappointed.


Let's talk a bit more about the the whole "us versus them" message. Hiccup spends the whole movie trying to find a peaceful solution (although he doesn't do a very good job of it, he can't even convince his father to give peace a chance), and as a result of this people get hurt and his father dies. So the message isn't just "it's us versus them", it's also "don't be naive and try to find a peaceful solution"? I guess it's supposed to be "if peace fails then be ready to fight", but the fact that his attempt to find peace just made the situation worse creates the impression that the movie is preaching against even trying. What makes it worse is that from the start his parents are saying "a chief protects his own", then at the end Hiccup starts saying it too; the implication being that they knew better all along and he was just being naive, that he learned the lesson and that we should learn it too. It's us versus them. At least that's the impression I got. It didn't help that the antagonist was basically unreasonable and insane, as if to say "don't bother trying to reason with your enemies, they are inhuman and won't listen".

I'm like a stuck record but... the first movie was about breaking barriers, unlikely friendships, and doing what you know to be right despite how much everyone around you ridicule's you for it. This one was about how important it is to fight and be strong. I mean, yes, they beat the big dragon in the end of the first, but they did it by outsmarting it, using knowledge gained by careful observation, and thanks to courage and teamwork. They beat the big dragon at the end of this one by... Toothless being more powerful. In the first one the Hiccup's redeeming features were his intelligence, compassion, curiosity and observation skills, as well as his creativity and crafting skills. In this one his redeeming features were... having the more powerful dragon as a pet.

They won by being stronger, not smarter or more caring or braver or by putting aside personal gain and ego in order to work together. While I enjoy plenty of movies where the good guys at the end beat the bad guys by being stronger (which is not always the case; often they "win" through intelligence or perseverance or plain old luck), it's usually because they worked harder or had, lets say, "purer" motivations that allowed them to push themselves harder, or thanks to their courage and willingness to put themselves at risk for others, that they found the strength or skill to win. In this movie, it's mainly because Toothless was just inherently more powerful. He was basically born superior. Yes, his motivations are arguably stronger, but we don't see that as being a factor, we just see him get angry and start shooting fireballs at the big dragon until he wins. I don't think that's a very useful or strong take-home message.

Dragon-riding feels a whole lot less special now that everyone and their mothers (literally) have been doing it for decades. Personally I didn't like the whole "Oh yeah, you're not actually all that special, you're just doing what you were genetically programmed to do" inheritance thing. What, was he "destined" to make peace with dragons? Makes his achievement a lot less special or meaningful in my eyes if it's just something that's in his blood, rather than something that he did himself out of courage and compassion. He's not a person, he's just a set of lucky genes it seems. This is what I meant before when I said that they took his uniqueness from him. I mean, why does everything have to be some sort of destiny that our parents have already created for us? It really seems to be all the rage in Hollywood these days, and it's stupid. It's just a way to try to make things seem more important, when in fact it makes them less so. I mean, if Valka was the first person to ever ride a dragon, then why wasn't the first movie about her instead of Hiccup? Her story is the more historically significant and impressive, Hiccup is just some guy who came later and followed in someone else's footsteps.

Besides, it really didn't make any sense that his mother was like that. In the first movie Stoick gives Hiccup a helmet made from Valka's breastplate, and says his helmet is the matching pair. This makes us believe she was a large strong warrior woman, probably with a similar frame and personality to Stoick. But when we see her in this movie, not just in the present but also in a flashback, she clearly could never have worn such a breastplate. Plus, she never comes across as a tough Viking warrior who's used to having to fend off dragons; it's almost like she's never seen them before and is completely panicking.

While it's not unbelievable that Stoick would have married a woman like that, it seems a bit out of character; remember that the whole village is very much more like Stoick than like Hiccup, so if she was so much like Hiccup that he inherited his... whatever it is that made him different enough that he could make friends with dragons, then she would have been essentially a social outcast as well. Plus she clearly had more of it since the dragons took one look at her and carried her away to... be their pet/queen/dancing monkey or whatever. Why the hell did the Dragons even choose her anyway? Cos that's basically what they did. Did their dragon-sense tingle and tell them she was special? Basically she was a chosen one, and Hiccup's achievements were all hereditary and not in any way his own doing, and Toothless was just born better. Everyone in this movie was just born special it seems.

One thing that annoys me though about how they made out that he just inherited all his "uniqueness" (I can't think of a better word for it I'm afraid) from his mother, is that if that was the case you would have expected Stoick to make some comment at some point in the first movie about how Hiccup is "his mother's son" or something, perhaps be slightly less surprised about how Hiccup is so different, or even be more accepting of it because it reminds him of his wife, but there was just never any indication originally that she was any different in any way to the rest of the dragon-killing vikings of old Berk. Them portraying her as the first dragon rider in this movie just doesn't fit with what we already know.

Also, she's a terrible mother and a horrible person. She clearly never even tried to come back and see her son, never mind try to stop Berkians from killing dragons. She had the dragons eating out of the palm of her hand, she easily could have had them drop her off somewhere and wait, then just walk into town. But she says she's too scared. Well, I'm sorry, but if the choice is take a risk (I'm not even really sure what the "risk" actually is; was she expecting Stoick to kill her or something if she ever came back?) or never see your son again, most mothers I think would take the risk.

Having said all that I really liked the scene where Stoick was reunited with Valka. It was sweet and emotional and I liked the singing bit.

Oh, and by the way: "Drago"? Really? Running out of ideas for names are we?

What's up with that flaming sword? It doesn't make sense and also doesn't look like the kind of thing the Hiccup that I know would spend time and effort to create, seeing as -unlike the other children- he was never portrayed as being interested in playing with swords or anything like that. Ditto with the weird full-leather body suit and face mask. Maybe it makes sense if you watch the series?

That whole "love quadrangle" thing was kinda funny, but also kinda weird and pointless, and I felt it lacked a payoff at the end, being kinda just dropped with no real conclusion.

What was with all the dragon mind control crap? How did Drago control the alpha? How did Hiccup's mother get Toothless, who was in a decidedly hostile mood, to roll over and go to sleep with a single wave of her hand? I don't even want to try to think about the logic behind experienced veteran dragons - Toothless killed a damned Dragon Queen last movie! - being completely powerless to resist an "Alpha", but baby dragons - who are developed enough to fly after all - not even noticing his mind control. I mean, Toothless risks his own life to save Hiccup every other day, yet here he was actually forced to attempted to kill Hiccup and he didn't seem to hesitate at all. Hell, Hiccup didn't do a damn thing to stop it either, other than hold his hand out. "Oh, but it's OK, because he overcame it in the end". Yeah, when the bad guy just stood there and let him get close instead of killing the little twerp himself. I guess it was supposed to be the triumph of friendship over adversity, but it just didn't work for me at all.

How did the alpha understand what Drago wanted anyway? Does he speak English? Hell, how can he even tell the difference between one human and the other? They're like the size of ants to him.

So Drago has been building a dragon army for something like twenty years? That's... quite a long time, I just feel as if I need more information about what's been happening all that time. I mean, he killed a bunch of chieftans with dragons, then just sat around collecting more dragons for two decades? Or has he been involved in constant war, but no-one in Berk (including Stoick, who was already kinda involved before) ever heard anything about an army of vikings and dragons working together?

Personally I felt that there were too many times when they could have killed Drago but chose not to. I know that it's a kids cartoon, but after Stoick got killed, I kinda expected Hiccup to be a little more willing to use lethal force if that's what it took, but instead he just kinda stands there talking to him at the end and forgets that there's a dragon the size of an entire mountain standing just five feet away. Hell, they didn't even kill him at the end despite how much harm he'd caused and even though it's been shown that he's a very dangerous guy to forget about, one who is perfectly willing to spend twenty years preparing his revenge if that's what it takes. So the writers were willing to kill Stoick but not Drago?

By the way, I'm not happy that Stoick did not kill a one-armed man in personal combat when he was fighting to protect the woman he loved - this was after he had already disarmed Drago by the way. He was clearly willing to and I have a hard time believing he didn't have the skill or strength.

Nobody ever really did anything that could actually be described as intelligent, which I find disappointing. I mean, what was Astrid thinking, telling Drago about Berk? After both Hiccup's father and mother, who both hold opposing views, tell him you can't reason with Drago, he still doesn't listen, and gets his dad killed as a result. I can't help but blame Hiccup for Stoick's death; which again makes me feel that the movie is preaching against even trying to find a peaceful solution, if it managed to make me angry at Hiccup for not going straight for the jugular.

Why did Drago let them live after taking their dragons?

How did Drago learn to fly Toothless so quickly? Learning to coordinate tail movements is not easy, assuming he could even figure out what the apparatus was, but he just hopped on and flew away.

Since Hiccup added a lock for the tail to allow Toothless to fly independently, and we know from the short that he's figured out how to allow Toothless to control the tail fin and fly, why didn't he leave it locked or put the full controllable system back on? Seeing as he kept falling off and leaving Toothless stranded, I think it's something he should have thought of.

The final battle scene was much, much, much less impressive and intelligent and entertaining and understandable and believable and sensible than the final showdown of the first movie. Seriously, they just stood there and breathed fireballs at each other? Or rather one breathed fireballs while the other just stood and shook his head. Who came up with that idea? Whoever it was, fire him.

So they won the day in the end by Toothless realizing he had new powers and turning out to be the most powerful dragon in the world? What is this, a video game? I mean, seriously, they won because their pet dragon was more powerful than the other guy's pet dragon: it's Pokemon.

Hiccup's mom jabbed Toothless in the neck and suddenly a bunch of flappy double fins popped out of his spinal column? Apart from the questions "What the hell was that?" and "What the hell was the point of that?", I think they looked terrible and ruined a very cool dragon design. Again, it felt like video-game logic more than anything else. Perhaps it was so that they could sell Toothless toys to people who already bought the old one?

Those glider wings are way too small for Hiccup to be flying so vertically. And can't he steer at all? Remember Hiccup has basically understood how dragons fly so as to work with Toothless to fly again, yet every time he uses the glider an obstacle magically appears right in front of him - not a large wide obstacle, but a single spar of rock or ice that he should be able to steer around if he has any control at all, but he doesn't - and Toothless has to save him. Seriously, EVERY SINGLE TIME! I counted three occasions where he used the glider wings and had to be rescued, and none where he used them and didn't. And he doesn't even bother to say thank you, he's really taking Toothless for granted these days. I mean, why did he even try it without considering a way to steer or picking a nice safe stretch of air where he knew there was nothing in the way first; he's supposed to be a smart guy after all, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to put together the glider wings in the first place.

I know I shouldn't complain about this since it's not really that much less believable than anything else, but... breathing ice? The films don't address the idea of magic, but from the way that Toothless analyses dragons and we see the mechanics of how they work to some extent, it gives the feeling that their fire is some kind of organic process rather than magic. But as breathing ice could only be magic, I kinda felt that it didn't fit the tone of the rest of the movie. Meh, it's a really minor complaint I suppose.

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