2010’s How to Train Your Dragon took a predictable story structure and turned it into an excellent piece of family entertainment as well as a massive hit for Dreamworks. The premise was one we’d seen many times before, especially in family entertainment: The nerdy and cowardly black sheep of a macho or conformist family becomes an unexpected hero through a series of exceptional coincidences and ends up saving the day and gaining the respect of their peers.
How to Train Your Dragon took this template, added instantly likable characters, breathtaking flying sequences and inventive character design and molded it into a modern family classic.
The first film already sported a complete standalone story arc and a satisfying ending. However, that never stopped a studio from cynically cashing in on a hit by merely copy-pasting the first installment, adding an extra character or two and mindlessly expanding whatever turned the first movie into a hit in the first place. Dreamworks itself is guilty of this practice on several counts with the Shrek and Madagascar series.
How to Train Your Dragon 2, on the other hand, creates a fresh new story that takes some unpredictable turns while organically expanding the mythology of its universe. It’s not only better than the first installment in the franchise, which is an impressive feat all by itself, but also elevates the material from mere family entertainment to a more expansive fantasy epic.
Dean DeBlois, the co-writer and co-director of the first How to Train Your Dragon and the co-director of the vastly underrated Lilo & Stitch returns to the franchise this time as the sole writer-director. He admitted that his major influence in creating the sequels was the original Star Wars trilogy. Refusing to be a part of the further advancement of the series unless he was granted control over a How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, he calls this second installment his Empire Strikes Back.
Looking at the second chapter with this information in mind, the narrative approach makes perfect sense. Empire took the smaller scale story of A New Hope and expanded its mythology while providing more depth to its characters. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his loyal dragon Toothless out of the tiny Viking town of Berk and introduces the audience to a new world full of dragon poachers, vicious Viking armies and giant, city-sized alpha dragons who can spit enough ice to put Elsa from Frozen to shame.
The approach is so much like Empire that there’s even a welcome twist relating to Hiccup’s family. Yet DeBlois doesn’t simply rip-off Empire’s structure, he just uses its storytelling methods to construct his own expansion of this universe.
After a spectacular opening set piece, showcasing a dragon race that upstages any Quidditch game from any of the Harry Potter films, Hiccup finds himself at a crossroads as his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) asks him to become the chief of Berk. However, the conflict surrounding this decision is intensified when he and his friends encounter an evil dragon hunter who’s hell-bent on capturing every dragon in the land and brainwashing them to do his bidding, forcing Hiccup to step up and become a leader before he can make a solid decision about his future. As a vast army approaches to steal Berk’s precious dragons, just when it seems like all hope is lost, Hiccup gets some much-needed help from an unexpected stranger.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 packs enough character development, impressive action set pieces and even a grand final battle sequence to be considered a true fantasy epic, all within the briskly-paced running time of 102 minutes. Some of the shots during the climactic battle between the dragon riders and a giant Viking army reminded me of the sheer grand spectacle of The Lord of The Rings trilogy. In fact, a long, sweeping dragon POV shot that begins in the skies and descends all the way down to the heat of the battle is far more impressive than anything in the first two overlong Hobbit films.