There's one very specific thing happening in How to Train Your Dragon 2 that would cause me to kind of love it a bit even if it the rest of it was a crashing failure instead of a small disappointment. Which it is, unfortunately; still one of the top handful of movies ever made by DreamWorks Animation, but pretty much across-the-board weaker than the original How to Train Your Dragon from 2010, except in the natural evolution of animation technology over the course of four years (though just the technology - I'm actually of the opinion that both the animation and design have taken a discernible step back).

But anyway, that specific thing, which is one of the boldest and most daring things that a major American animated feature has down in a really long time: the film is full of background action. That doesn't sound impressive, so maybe I'm saying it wrong. The thing is, there's a human plot in HTTYD2, and it is perfectly fine and a very ambitious and sincere effort to increase the scope and conflict of HTTYD1, and writer-director Dean DeBlois is unquestionably a good and attentive handmaiden to keep this franchise growing in ever grander and more epic directions, if that's the sort of thing you want. Anyway, while this human plot is going about its business in the foreground, the whole movie is amazingly dense with background action, much of it centered on the dragon Toothless, who immediately became, in my not-remotely-humble opinion, one of the most adorable and appealing animated characters in recent memory upon his premiere in the '10 film. There are a lot more featured dragons this time around, with names and personalities that go above and beyond anything in the first movie, none of them nearly as ridiculously lovable as Toothless, but that's not the point. The point is, there is much interaction between Toothless and these dragons, or between dragons and the environment, or between dragons and humans, and a great deal of it happens behind the main action. It's not commented on, and we're not "supposed" to pay attention to it - it's not one of those things where the conversation happening in the foreground is banal nonsense so as to not distract us from the hijinks going on in the back row. It's really just filigree, decoration that's there if you want to notice it but completely disposable if you don't.

That's probably not something to really be all that excited by, except that it's such a rarity in films of this sort, and it's honestly quite impressive in its needlessness. Animation is labor intensive; animation doesn't favor putting stuff in that doesn't ultimately serve a purpose of some kind. So it's a wonderful sign of the filmmakers' passion that HTTYD2 pays so much attention to things whose usefulness is so abstract. For these little gestures are useful: they flesh out the world and remind us that everything doesn't hit the pause button when the heroes hash out the plot; the acknowledge that there's a lot of pleasure in these films in the simple act of watching the dragons move and play in their cat-influenced (and increasingly dog-influenced, in this film) body language. It's a little detail that works splendidly; and what is great cinema, but the accumulation of a sufficient number of little details?

Now, this particular film does not have that sufficient number of details to round the corner to "great cinema", though I'd be inordinately hard-pressed to define any of it as "bad", or even to explain in any kind of rational terms why I felt let down by what is by all means a strong animated fantasy adventure. DeBlois - working without partner Chris Sanders for the first time ever, while Sanders is off making The Croods into a franchise for DreamWorks - has very clear designs on how to expand the universe established in the first movie, and insofar as that's the goal, he's tremendously successful in carrying it of. Taking up five years after the first movie, we find that the viking island stronghold of Berk is now dominated by dragon riders, and the village knows a level of peace and prosperity unimaginable at any other point in its history. This has given local hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) plenty of time to take his beloved dragon companion Toothless out into the wide sea to draft new and more detailed maps, to the irritation of his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), who's desperately trying to groom his son to become the next chief of Berk.

Things are about to get bad, of course, as they do; one on his his flights, Hiccup discovers an unknown power has been gathering together dragons to form an army and take over the entire world, or at least that part of it known to the Northern European peoples. The leader of this force is Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a former enemy of Stoick's, and Hiccup's hope that a peaceful resolution can be found is greeted by the viking chief with no enthusiasm; when the boy attempts to go out on his own to broker peace, he ends up running across the mysterious dragonmaster Valka (Cate Blanchett), who fully agrees with Stoick's opinion, and meanwhile hopes to do all she can to protect as many dragons as possible in an ice-covered sanctuary. She's also Hiccup's long-lost mother, so that adds a fun wrinkle to the whole thing.

It's a sprawling thing, with lots of big fantasy action of the sort that lots of computers and a PG rating can facilitate, and a huge story of high stakes and civilisation-wide conflict, and somewhere in all of that, the human element that made the first movie so freakishly charming and wonderful has gotten completely lost. This isn't a movie that knows much what to do with its characters: Hiccup is forced securely into a generic Hero's Journey narrative that the series could have done just as fine without (and Baruchel's shrill whine, so perfect last time, has abruptly become a significant liability for the character), and in its zeal to make sure that stock arc is treated with the most gravity possible, the film sidelines everybody else, no matter how interesting it feels like they could be - Valka, in particular, is a terrific, dynamic figure, voiced by Blanchett with warm authority and strength, and basically after she arrives to elbow the plot in the right direction, she never gets anything else to do, despite having a skill set that the remainder of the story would seem to be able to take advantage of multiple times in multiple ways (it's worth pointing out that the script originally had Valka as the villain, to be redeemed in the end, and Drago was to show up in the third movie. I don't know when this change happened, but it was far enough along that the structure wasn't able to completely recover - Drago is left a dreadfully underdeveloped and unthreatening threat, and the momentum throughout is all over the place).

Of course, nothing's wrong with any of this: it's a grand, imposing spectacle, if a little too elaborate for its own good at times (Drago's army is implausibly large and well-stocked), with well-staged action scenes that make full use of the broad canvas permitted by animation and characters who can fly. It's a handsome movie, the most polished and realistic in DreamWorks's canon, thought that realism comes at a price: the character designs have all gotten a bit less rubbery and likable than they were before (mostly in the way of textures and hair - boy, are the filmmakers ever fucking proud of Stoick's mustache, it gets almost as many close-ups as any of the other characters). And John Powell's score, reusing cues from the last film alongside a few new ones, is extravagantly robust and overwhelming, like the best of Maurice Jarre and James Horner rolled up together.

But epic grandeur isn't any replacement for the scene in the first movie of Hiccup gently, patiently causing Toothless to creep nearer to him; it doesn't excuse the way that all of the supporting characters have been thrust into an idiotic love quadrangle plot and denuded of the comic relief elements that were their primary reason for existing in the first place (this is, in fact, a surprisingly non-funny movie, for an American animation). How to Train Your Dragon 2 is beautiful and imposing; but it's also a bit remote. The best moment in the movie, by far, is a tentative, then ebullient dance between Stoick and Valka, reunited after 20 years; the second best is all tangled up in spoilers, but it involves a stately, meaningful farewell to one of the characters to kick off the last act. These are both character moments to the bone; they're moments that are in dismayingly short supply throughout the movie as a whole. It's rich and involved storytelling, largely beautiful to look at, and I'll never say no to a chance to revisit the franchise's intoxicatingly well-executed dragon animation, but a little heart and soul got lost on the way to grandeur and weight and scale.

Reviews in this series
How to Train Your Dragon (DeBlois & Sanders, 2010)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DeBlois, 2014)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (DeBlois, 2019)