Written by Dean DeBlois, Cressida Cowell
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferreira, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett
Directed by Dean DeBlois
PG – 102 Minutes
It’s taken four years and change for DreamWorks animation to give us the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, based on the children’s book series of the same name by Cressida Cowell. The first film, viewers will recall, featured inventive misfit Hiccup (Baruchel), sensitive boy and disappointment to his father Stoick the Vast (Butler), finding he just wasn’t cut out to hunt and kill dragons — but that he was cut out to make friends out of them and show others the way to do so as well. Now five years older, as the danger of war looms over Berk, Hiccup’s peacekeeping and dragon-communing skills will be put to the test.
SPOILER WARNING: there will be plot points revealed in this review.
Five years (and one animated series) later, things have only gotten better for the craggy island community of Berk. Everyone loves dragons. Everyone has dragons. Everyone rides dragons. And Hiccup’s little crew are still the cool kids, best at the island’s new sport: dragon racing (which is a little like Quidditch and a little like Keep Away, with a sheep as the Snitch).
Hiccup is still avoiding his father. Although their relationship has grown in the time since the earlier story, some things never change and Stoick still doesn’t really listen when his son has something to say, such as “I’m not sure I’m ready to be chief of the village”. At least Hiccup has his best friend Toothless the dragon to help the teen distract himself from such weighty concerns as how to live up to a father who’s almost larger than life. We see the youthful inventor has kept at it as he shows off his new armor and glider suit.
Girlfriend Astrid (America Ferreira) is still around and still a feisty character, though her feistiness gets her in trouble. Fishlegs is still the studious one; Snoutlout is still trying to impress girls, though he’s moved on to Ruffnut, who doesn’t seem to care about the rivalry Snoutlout and Fishlegs have to court her. Tuffnut remains the dumb muscle type.
Astrid offers support to Hiccup, who is not sure he knows who he is, since he’s not really like his father, and never knew his mother. As the two of them ride home, they meet up with a group of dragon trappers. After getting Astrid’s dragon back and hearing the name of the person the trappers work for, they return to Berk. Things continue to be the same. Stoick has taken Hiccup’s return as interest in taking over as chief, and sets to training him, ignoring his son’s indications that there’s reason for concern — until Hiccup mentions the name of the dragon hunters’ boss: Drago Bludvist. Stoick goes from goofily proud father to serious chief in an instant, battening down the hatches and telling his son that there is nothing to do except hunker down because Bludvist is a ruthless and merciless.
Hiccup, convinced that peace is possible, sets out to prove to Bludvist that dragons are intelligent and kind. On the way, he meets another dragon rider, one who can ride standing, and who seems to be easily more capable and competent a dragon whisperer than Hiccup himself.
Stoick goes after Hiccup, in fear his son’s idealism may bite him off more than he can chew.
Astrid goes after both of them, and ends up taking the dragon hunter as her prisoner. When they run afoul of Bludvist himself, the dragon hunter ends up forced to pick a side.
The artwork is lush and beautiful: Hiccup, Snoutlout, Fishlegs, the twins and Astrid are all beautifully rendered, and have been aged up to show the passage of time. The same is true for Stoick and Gobber, and the mysterious Dragon Rider. The animation and action is beautiful, and the movie is worth seeing in IMAX or 3D despite the extra cost for those features at the box office.
All respect to the fact that there are disabled characters in the story from the first movie who continue onward here. Gobber, Hiccup, and Toothless all have various disabilities that make them no less heroic and capable.
All respect to the fact that the women characters we meet are all on par with any man they share the screen with. Ruffnut, Astrid, and Valka are all able to hold their own in a fight, and only find themselves imperiled when they are forced to confront gravity.
All well and good.
It’s not a perfect movie. There are flaws; little ones, medium sized ones, and one humongous one. There’s some casual ableist language. Hiccup himself describes both Drago and the people of Berk as “crazy”. His father calls Drago a “madman”. Unfortunate, common parlance.
There are other, worse messages I have major problems with. Stoick rushes away from the vale of dragons with a protesting Hiccup in tow, once again not listening to his son’s entreaties. Stoick’s best friend Gobber is the one who gets Stoick to stop long enough to listen — at which point Stoick discovers his wife, thought dead lo these twenty years — is alive and well, if a bit feral and weird from having spent more time around dragons than people.
Valka (Blanchett), who never expected to see her husband again, reacts with mixed emotions: rage that his refusal to see that humans and dragons could live in peace is why she thought it best never to return, and fear that her abandonment of him and their son has made him hate her. To his surprise, his reaction is quiet, subdued joy. He tells her only how beautiful she is, and kisses her. Valka is awkward and skittish, astonished by his reaction. But Stoick draws her out, first whistling and then singing “For the Dancing and the Dreaming”, the song with which he proposed to her. At first it seems she is unmoved by his gesture, and you can see the fear and grief welling in his eyes. But she then begins to sing her part of the song, and while a beaming Hiccup and Gobber watch, the two do the viking version of renewing their vows.
This is beautiful on several levels — the most important of which is consent. Stoick didn’t just pull the “you are my wife and you come home NOW” macho thing. He asked her, and was willing to respect her answer, even if it had been no.
The moment is all the more touching because when the three are together, it’s clear that Hiccup shares not only personality traits but physical features with each parent, and it’s obvious that Hiccup himself feels more complete now that he knows where his dragon whispering abilities came from.
This was all very sweet, very lovely. I had to put down the popcorn and reach for the Kleenex. But the filmmakers couldn’t leave the happy beginning as a happy ending in the middle of the second act. Having showed tenderness and vulnerability, when Hiccup is forced to confront Drago Bludvist — Stoick rushes to protect his son and dies for it; destroyed by a fire blast from a mind-controlled Toothless no less. It comes across as a patriarchal message that Stoick lived this long by being a brutal badass fighter, but now that he’s showed love, tenderness, gentleness and protectiveness — it’s weakness, for which he dies. This is made worse because putting toughness before love was the conceit that nearly killed Hiccup in the first film.
Lesser, but still annoying, was the idea that Snoutlout and Fishlegs were competing over an uninterested Ruffnut. Apparently she and Astrid are the only teenage girls in all of Berk! At least Ruffnut got her female gaze moments of crushing on the leader of the dragon hunters; who was equally disinterested. Not thrilled at all that her first words to him were “take me.”
These were not the only unfortunate messages the film contains. The other one, and an order of magnitude worse, is Drago Bludvist himself. I don’t have a problem with him being the guy who hates dragons and thinks the only way to be safe from them is to control them. It’s standard Villain 101 that he’s a power-hungry bastard who also decides that he should control people or destroy them since controlling dragons gives him power. The conflict had to come from somewhere.
The problems I have go beyond the simple superficial villainy as proscribed. There are only two voice actors in the cast who are not white. Latina America Ferreira plays white, blonde Astrid. West African Djimon Hounsou is the other, voicing Drago. I guess it’s a step up from Eddie Murphy playing a Donkey in a DreamWorks movie, or Chris Rock playing a Zebra. At least the black voice actor is portraying a human this time, right? Did I say a step up?
Drago is not actually rendered with brown skin. But he may as well have been. He fits so many Angry Black Man tropes that he’s a walking, talking dog whistle. His skin is visibly darker than those of either the Berk group or the dragon hunter group. He has long, black dreadlocks (the only other dreadlocked character who gets as much facetime is Tuffnut, who is portrayed as an idiot). His skin is covered in craggy scars, and his features are more angular and flat than the soft, curved features of the Berk crew and the dragon hunters. In fact, they’re almost simian. He screams and rages, and seeks to control and dominate from a position of intimidation and cruelty.
His leviathan-size dragon is a dishwater grey version of the same dragon type that lives in Valka’s vale of dragons. Her dragon, the Bewilderbeast, is pure white, snowy, pristine. So on top of the subtle racism, you have the not-so-subtle “white = good, not-white = bad” message with visual indicators. Thanks, DreamWorks Animation.
I would have loved to have given the benefit of the doubt here, but there are at least six people credited in the Editorial Department for the film. There are at least eight people listed in the Art Department, four of whom are visual development artists, and two of whom are storyboard artists. That’s at least fourteen people who might have spotted this egregious and offensive set of messages, but nobody considered how it would come across? Sadly, given how often unintentionally racist messages make it into media — I can believe it.
Other than those two really difficult to process and not-at-all-minor problems, the film holds together well. It has all the heart of the original, a bit less humor, and a respectable amount of character development.
The movie has multiple reach-for-the-Kleenex moments, so be prepared.
According to IMDB.com, How to Train Your Dragon 3 is already in treatment status. DreamWorks Animation already stepped up their game visually from a CGI standpoint, and it’s fair to say they will do so again. But they are going to have to really bring their A-Game storytelling wise if they don’t want to mar the third movie in the trilogy with oppressive messages.
3/5 stars. Loses one star for the patriarchal message that a man who is emotional doesn’t deserve to live, and one star for the dog whistle and visually coded racism. The story would’ve lost nothing for omitting those two major problems.
Put half a star back if you thought that Astrid deserved better than she got by way of face time and being the hero’s girlfriend Leave it off if you thought Valka’s story deserved sidelining Astrid a little.
Take away half a star if you are so stonehearted that the movie’s tearjerker moments didn’t actually move you to tears.
Take away a whole star if you are one of the people with vision issues who can’t even see this film in 3D without debilitating headaches, or just go see it in 2D and enjoy.