Viking teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and dragon Toothless are in a more grave mood in "How to Train Your Dragon 2." Credit: Dreamworks Animation
'How to Train Your Dragon 2' Director: Dean DeBlois Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett Rating: PG 3 (out of 5) Globes
Sequels come in two flavors: repeats of the first or continuing sagas that build to a franchise. “22 Jump Street” does the first, but does so with self-awareness that calls into question the existence of sequels in the first place. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” may be even more extreme. The 2010 original was a self-contained animated work that didn’t particularly cry for more story. Its follow-up exists because that film made gobs of money. But instead of merely offering another lighthearted tale of cute dragons tamed by goofy teens, it goes in a completely different, far more dramatic and darker direction. It’s like if Tim Burton’s “Batman” was followed up by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
OK, it’s not that extreme. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is merely more serious, even tragic, than its predecessor. Where that film had scores of jokes, this has about five, and most of those are about how cute dragons are. (The main one acts like a cat.) Where the first detailed how a nebbishy kid, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), went from zero to hero, here he has to deal with a larger threat to his dragon-loving Viking commune: a menacing despot (Djimon Hounsou) who seeks to harness and control all of the world's dragons to do his evil deeds. Hiccup (whose nickname quickly becomes tonally inappropriate) also deals with meeting the grave, environmentalist mother he never knew. She happens to be voiced by no less than Cate Blanchett, who reads her lines like she’s doing Ibsen.
Cate Blanchett is a probably too serious addition to the cast of the once-lighthearted "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. Credit: Dreamworks Animation
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” deepens a story and characters that probably didn’t need to be deepened. Actually it doesn’t really deepen it: It just takes it more seriously. Hiccup is given some rote business about not being sure who he is, especially compared to his hulking, macho man father (Gerard Butler — apparently Viking kids speak with American accents that turn Scottish in adulthood). Baruchel tries to make his new joke-free dialogue sound dramatic. The actor doesn’t have to play nervous to be enjoyable; he was delightfully pissed-off in last year’s “This is the End.” Here, he sounds lost, as if he was surprised that his big franchise took non-comedic turn, but contractually obligated to read the lines anyway.
What it does retain from the first is a visual handsomeness, with vivid, dark colors frequently interrupted by belched flames. The action, from dragon flying to heavy battles, is clean and kinetic, and a reminder that live-action action these days too often goes for quicksilver editing that favor quick thrills over sense, while animators like to give you clear views of their hard work. Odd though the tonal shift between the two films is, the po-facedness of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” becomes absorbing — or at least diverting. Like the first, it’s clearly solid but instantly forgettable. It could change things up even more for the third outing and few would notice the difference.