At the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" Richard Dreyfuss' character abandons his family to go live with a bunch of space aliens. Few thought much of it, though in later years Steven Spielberg has said he wouldn't play the ending the same way. Well, we've come a long way, baby.
In "How To Train Your Dragon 2" we meet a woman named Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) who skipped out on her husband and son to go study and protect dragons. You think Elsa being Anna's true love is progressive? The gender politics in this are comparatively militant.
Or, it could just be that the storytelling is muddled and a beat didn't come across. Because Valka does mumble something about needing to "protect" her family, and that's why she split. Frankly, I'm going that route, as everything else in this momentum-free movie is pretty half-baked.
The child in question, if you haven't guessed, is Hiccup, once again amiably voiced by Jay Baruchel. His Viking hamlet of Berk is as happy as we last left it, though now it is the place to go to watch dragon races. (The races involve picking up innocent sheep and tossing them into targets, kind've like a skybound, mutton version of Rollerball.) With his best pal Toothless, Hiccup is out exploring new lands and making maps, but his old man Stoik (Gerard Butler) is readying for his boy to take his throne.
Much of the first half is ramping up a retread of the first film's main conflict – Hiccup doesn't want to do what his father wants him to do. We take a left turn, though, when we run afoul of a band of dragon poachers, who work for (dig this name) Drago Bludvist.
Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is a Viking chieftain who, years ago, went rogue and somehow become a dragon soothsayer. He's got an Alpha Dragon (similar to the big baddie from the last movie) under his thumb and together they can . . .they can what, exactly? Well, his plans are vague. But he's the bad guy, that's all that matters, and Hiccup and his g.f. Astrid (American Ferrera) and the whole gang from Berk need to fly around and around (and around) and do battle in many well designed sequences in order to save the day.
The computer generated action gets repetitive, but, as with the first film, the creature design is terrific. The dragons are just a tad scary, but still bright and elaborate and sometimes goofy. There's an enormous behemoth with cold breath that shoots ice crystals that will inspire “woah!”s from kids 8 to 80. And then there's Toothless.
Hiccup's trained dragon Toothless (who seems to understand English a whole lot more now) is one of the finest bits of creature animation ever. He's got the mannerisms of ALL your favorite pets, be they dog or cat or bunny rabbit. There's a story beat where Toothless does something terrible, and the animators and computer technicians manage to get this collection of pixels to wordlessly convey guilt, worry and sorrow in ways few actors could pull off.
What's unfortunate is that Toothless is starring in a toothless story. There just isn't much that's happening in this movie – just a lot of running around and discussing past events. The strange story thread of the disappearing mother (and the family that seems not-too-annoyed at her) adds enough weirdness to keep it interesting – though it may perplex or even upset the target audience of youngsters.
It's surprising how something that clearly takes a great deal of preparation and care to create can come out the other side with almost no forward drive. Believe it or not, as far as recent ill-conceived sequels to beloved animated movies go, I much prefer "Cars 2." At least that went places.