That's what happened with my reviews for every episode of season 4 of MLP, by the way, and why I abruptly stopped after "Trade Ya" (actually, what REALLY happened was that I got caught up with school work that I couldn't set aside, thus resulting in me switching gears to focus on that, rather than things like MLP reviews, but the lack of interest was what kept from going BACK), though I do still plan on going back and covering what remaining episodes I haven't reviewed at some future date (because that finale is just screaming it) even if its so...after the fact.
But basically, I've decided that for future reviews, I'm only going to write it if I feel I genuinely have something to discuss, or something new to add to the overarching discussion on the subject.
Which leads me to why I'm writing all of this now; today I saw "How To Train Your Dragon 2" for the first time.
So now you're asking, what did you think of it? Was it as great as the hype promised, matching or exceeding the success (in terms of storytelling) of the first one? As great as all the other fans claim it to be, and that there is little to nothing you'd change, or even needing changing?
But at the end of the day, I don't think this sequel quite matches the quality of its predecessor.
The reasons why are all mostly technical. And first of all is that the movie carries itself like the sequel that it is; it is under no uncertain terms a number two movie, and indeed, operated entirely under this assumption. Usually what is done with a sequel movie is to try and spend at least sometime re-introducing the audience to the characters and the universe, OR rig the story in such a way that it can stand on its own enough that you only need to know the basics of the first movie so to be able to follow along. This is done mostly for the benefit of those who may be watching this one before they've seen the one before it (or those with a weak memory), so they can still be able to follow along without getting lost.
"How To Train Your Dragon 2" (henceforth referred to as HTTYD2, because I'm getting tired typing out the whole title again and again), however, does not do this. In fact, it scarcely tries; the only real recap you get is Hiccup's traditional opening "this is Burk" narrative (which on another note, are starting to get a little cheesy, overdone, and melodramatic. I get its a staple of the movie, but I think it's gotten a little unnecessary now when you could present the same info in normal, more natural, character dialogue) and that barely covered the basics. Beyond that, the movie completely and entirely assumes that you have seen the first film, know everything about what's going on, and that there is no need to update you. You could even say that it picks up from where the first left off in a way, even with the notable time difference.
This is quite a gamble though, because HTTYD2 does not standalone from its predecessor and is in fact very reliant upon it. Because the first film was such a huge success, it manages to get by, so its a gamble that largely pays off, but if you're seeing this film before you've seen or at least heard what happens the first one, then heaven help you! It will be hard for you to keep up with what's happening, because the movie is so presumptuous you know what happened in the first.
The movie also meanders a bit in its first half, even despite not wasting time and jumping right into the heart of the story (helped by the fact it did take so little time to recap) and then rushes a little in the second half, so the movie has some pacing problems; nothing crippling mind you, just enough to make some stop and wonder where its going, or if its going to get on with things. In other words, the story sags somewhat in that beginning, and at other times feels almost like it's gotten itself...distracted. There's a few examples of this, but the best is Stoick and his wife, Valka's impromptu song and dance number about halfway through the film. As sweet as it was, it offered next to nothing to the film; at least nothing that couldn't have been done and said in far less time. It feels fillerish, in fact, but I suspect that, given how the movie is built, it was not intentional. The writers were trying to accurately portray the raging emotions of this abrupt and unexpected union of family, and this had all the right parts for that. They just...got carried away, I guess? It at least brings up the question of whether or not the movie is right to put focus on something like this for so long a time when we've got bigger issues out there, like a madman building a dragon army (which was how it all started, by way of reminder) or fellow Burkians who were waiting anxiously for their return and presumed the worse when they failed to turn up at the expected time, and so on.
Character balance is also of issue. Hiccup and by association Toothless are the stars, and that's all well and good, but it's the use of the side characters that feel a little...unbalanced. Hiccup's friends really do not feel like they have the same presence in this film like they did in the first one. To keep things interesting, they threw in this convoluted love triangle with Ruffnut that got really overplayed before the film had even gotten halfway through, and then ultimately spent all that time on it to no avail as that subplot gets no real resolution to it at all, and in fact scarcely even progresses in any notable direction. Astrid feels underused, and her relationship with Hiccup does not make any new developments, and indeed, is barely acknowledged and more just largely implied. Gobber is just there, typically for the comic relief, a step down from before when he was also a source of unconventional wisdom and advice. The dragon trapper, Eret, gets little development, and you never really get the chance to get to know the character or care for why he's there, he's just along for the ride and often the source of even more comic relief and feels largely unnecessary, not earning enough purpose to justify having around. The dragons themselves are the source of many visual gags and while cute, playful, and expressive, seem to loose some of their double-edged feel they so proudly presented in the last film.
I even have a few gripes about Hiccup's newly introduced mother, namely in the fact that little tidbit was revealed early in promoting the film and lost a lot of its edge in the process, and then there's the fact Hiccup just accepts her as his mother, despite having never known her, without much protest or questioning at all. She's just all "a mother never forgets" and save a brief moment of heightened breath, Hiccup's attitude to that is "that's cool, so where've you been all these years anyway? Just asking" on complete faith of her word, even though he ought to have little reason to without a heck of a lot more proof, and the movie just runs with that. It doesn't feel believable to me, and a little rigged to ensure the plot goes in a specific direction. Valka gets more expressive bonding time with Stoick than she does with Hiccup, and Hiccup ought to have been the priority character in that matter, and the conflict with Stoick resolved more quickly. So it's sort of backwards.
And there's the villain, Drago, who honestly feels flat and unexplored. Why is he the way he is? Dunno, save a few faint clues, he just is. It's not really explored why, and his motives are equally flat and even unoriginal. I mean, he's creative in the sense he uses dragons as his army, but his use of it is very shallow and somewhat blunt, not even that tactically creative. He also has an army of human followers, but their unimportant because they pretty much vanish and are ignored altogether by the film's end, which makes you wonder why he even had them when dragons were clearly all he really needed. Don't get me wrong, Drago had potential, but it goes largely unexploited and he could've been explored much more and given much more motive for his actions besides "just because I can."
And I have to question if giving the movie such a clear villain was really even needed anyway. Part of what made the last movie so great was that there WAS no clear antagonist, save to give a focus to the end fight. It was about misunderstandings and misconceptions in each other that was the "enemy" so to speak, and I would've thought a sequel would've continued with that trend. Instead, they go with the more common and familiar storytelling troupe of that one bad guy who wants all the power and control because it'd be cool to have it and he's just that stereotypically evil. So it seems like that's a step backwards in the end.
And the movie was somewhat overhyped, too, which also doesn't help. A good movie can be made even better if you can save enough of the details to only be learned once you're in the theater and watching it, not beforehand. Reveal too much in advance, though, and you start to wonder what is there left to watch? All the neat and important stuff has already gotten teased. In the case of HTTYD2, this was a fear I started to have early on in its promotion. But my dad, who got to see the film before I did, assured me after he did that they had not spoiled too much in trailers and the such. Now that I have seen the film for myself, though, I have to respectfully disagree on this matter. Save for Stoick's untimely death and the end fight, all the rest of the important stuff in the film to see had already gotten teased and revealed in advance, and thus becomes just "going through the motions."
Speaking of the end fight, it was satisfactory, but felt like it was missing something all throughout. Maybe it was just my expectations, the hope of finding Burk in disarray and miserable, which you get, but not to the same degree I guess I had hoped for. I feel like it could've been much more...grandiose, yet fell short of that. Way short. But maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing; grandiose endings are fun and all, but sometimes the story just doesn't need one, and maybe HTTYD2 was one of those.
But that and other things left the movie rather predictable, and I accurately predicted pretty much all the twist and turns the movie had to throw in advance of their actually happening, or even real indications that they would happen. I had guessed Eret's switching to Burk's side well in advance, I knew Toothless would break free of the alpha dragon's hypnotism, was unsurprised by Toothless's achieving of a "super form" (seriously, they might as well have given him seven chaos emeralds and started playing "Open Your Heart"), expected Hiccup to briefly blame Toothless for Stoick's death and then turn around and forgive him and recognize it wasn't his fault, and yes, I even predicted Stoick's death way, WAY in advance to it actually happening.
And speaking of said death, while I don't want to demean it any because it is pulled off very well...I do have a few issues with Stoick's demise, but not a whole lot. Namely, the fact Stoick dies pretty much the same time Hiccup is reunited with his mother who survives makes the whole death a little hollow. And then there's back to the fact that I found Stoick's death predictable and had guessed it well in advance, figuring somebody was going to die at some point in this movie and Stoick was the best candidate to bump off for reasons I'll explain further in a second. It's so much so that I think the movie's crew actually missed an opportunity to bump of a character that would've doubled the emotional impact, which is the biggest reason I'm doing this review.
So what character do I think would've been better to kill off in HTTYD2?
I know what you're thinking, but at least hear me out first:
As I already said, fairly early into the movie I suspected someone was going to bite it, so all that left was determining who exactly it might be. My most likely candidates were Stoick, Toothless, and Hiccup, in roughly that order. Others were considered, but were considered increasingly less likely from there.
We can rule out Hiccup pretty quickly because he is THE star character; without him, the franchise is basically over, unless you can come up with some replacement for him, which the movie pretty clearly showed it had absolutely no set up for such a goal to do so, so yeah, it wasn't too likely, and I recognized that fairly early on into the movie.
Stoick, on the other hand, was the obvious choice. Would've created emotional turmoil and a sense of loss and "a price" for the actions taken, given Hiccup conflict and opposing motives to deal with, disrupted the leadership of Burk, and best of all, since Hiccup was already set to rise into the position as the new chief, would've forced Hiccup into that position and have to rise to challenge for the good of everybody else, and so on. It's a tried, true, and common storytelling tactic in such types of story, but it works well if you can stir enough emotions with the death. And on this point they succeed; Stoick's funeral was a bit of a tearjerker, not going to lie. But Stoick's death was so obvious that I'm not at all surprised they went that route, it was the natural course given the course of the story, created an emotive character death, but without eliminating any characters too important to keep around for the franchise to continue. He is, in essence, the "safe" choice. Set up was all right for it, so little risk taken in going that route.
Which is why I think bumping off Toothless would've been much more powerful.
I had predicted Stoick's death pretty easily, but if Toothless had bit it, I would have been stunned. Absolutely stunned that they had the gall to do it, and would've been even more impressed if they pulled it off convincingly. And knowing how popular a character Toothless is with the fanbase, I know all of you would be too, to the point that some of you are probably a little miffed at me for even suggesting the idea, but that's just it. Given Toothless was on my list of possible dying candidates, it's possible I and others would've predicted his death too, but predictability plays a much less role for a character as popular and key as Toothless. Everybody loves him. No one would want to see him die, and the audience would have a very hard time accepting his death. So would the characters in the movie. I can only imagine that Hiccup would be absolutely devastated. And Toothless isn't a character you can just go on with things and do without like Stoick, which means there's probably at least one of you going "but wouldn't that spell 'franchise over' and be in the same boat as Hiccup earlier?"
It was repeatedly stated in HTTYD2 that Toothless is believed to be the last of the Nightfury kind, but we don't actually have any proof of that. In fact I don't believe it for a second; I fully expect there to be another Nightfury out there somewhere and that at some point in the franchise, Toothless and Hiccup are going to encounter it (calling it now; the other Nightfury will be female), so much so, that there were several times in watching this movie that I fully expected another Nightfury to suddenly pop up. If one had, then in theory that Nightfury could've stepped into Toothless's role should something happen to him. Or, if I'm right that the theoretical other Nightfury will be female, had Toothless live just long enough to start a little Nightfury family from which Toothless's legacy could live on.
And it didn't have to be another Nightfury even, given Hiccup's appreciation for dragons and his way with them, it could've just as easily been a different breed of dragon too, perhaps a new breed introduced as of that movie that had the same sort of exotic mystique as Toothless. Of course, this isn't to say Toothless is replaceable. Obviously, he is unique enough of a character that if he were to die, you couldn't just have some other dragon step into his shoes; there would always be part of Toothless that would be gone forever and irreplaceable...just like Stoick.
But that's why the idea appeals to me so much. I definitely don't WANT to see Toothless come to any harm either, but from a writing perspective, surely you can see the potential of the idea, just how much magnitude such an impact would have, especially if done convincingly in such a matter the audience can accept it. Think about what your own emotions might be like if you saw such a sequence take place in the movie. Sad, yes, but you'd be moved by it, and that's what every good movie seeks to do. Hit their audience right in the feels. And this tactic could do just that, don't tell me it wouldn't.
You wouldn't even have to bring in the new dragon right away either, if at all. HTTYD2 could've ended with Toothless's death and that being that, then the eventual "How To Train Your Dragon 3" could've picked up from there and explored whether or not Hiccup would be capable of accepting that death and finding it within him to be able to move on without his greatest friend.
And the set up in which to theoretically kill Toothless already exists in HTTYD2; right before Stoick's death, when Hiccup is cornered by the hypnotized Toothless and Stoick's running to the scene to intervene, I wondered just what it was Stoick planned to do. It quickly occurred to me that, from a tactical point of view, it'd be to fight Toothless...to kill. In fact, I am convinced that had Stoick arrived on the scene just a little bit sooner than he actually did, that was indeed what he planned to do. He may have come to accept dragons into his life as allies and friends, but I cannot believe he wouldn't be above killing one if the situation demanded it so to save the life of another...especially Hiccup. It would've been a tough judgment call to make, and indeed, Hiccup could never forgive Stoick had that happened, but that just adds another layer of intrigue to the whole idea. That whole event could have easily ended very differently, and part of me wishes they had been brave and done it.
Would it have been risky? Ohhhhh yes. Do it wrong, and you've just alienated all the Toothless fans, and let's face it, that's three-fourths of the fanbase right there. But this movie wasn't afraid to take risks; it took others and succeeded. And the fact that it had succeeded in similar areas already in the franchise (that's part of the reason its been so successful already, and you'd have to be blind not to see that) I have the utmost confidence that they could've pulled it off admirably.
But I digress.
Ultimately, I feel HTTYD2 didn't quite reach the same level as its predecessor. It comes very close, but I can't help but feel they could've pushed it just a bit further still. Yet at the same time, I cannot with a clear conscience doom this movie in anyway. It is still a good movie that was well worth seeing...and at the end of the day, I think that's all we'd really want.