“You know that doesn’t wash out!” Again, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is slathered in dragon drool, his pet dragon Toothless playfully clambered up onto Hiccup’s chest and pinning him to the ground, his tongue wild and pink and dripping with saliva.
In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup and Toothless reaffirm their brilliant friendship, a boy and his dog-like dragon, as devoted to one another as they might possibly be—so devoted, in fact, that Hiccup is missing a foot, lost in the previous movie so that he now matches Toothless in missing a crucial appendage, replaced with a mechanical version. (For the dragon, you’ll recall, it’s a tail fin, replaced by Hiccup’s ingenious mechanical fin.) This physical likeness makes visual their emotional symbiosis, and the film makes visible, repeatedly and rather delightfully, their mutual devotion, in moments like the sloppy licking, the adoring gazes into one another’s eyes, the blissful soaring when Hiccup rides his flying dragon into a great gorgeous blue sky.
This relationship is the foundation of the franchise’s hopeful central theme, which is to say that everyone can get along, even species that seem so opposed as dragons and humans. In this second film, that theme is refined, sort of, in the sense that the potential oppositions are more complicated. Five years after the first film, all Vikings on the Isle of Berk are happily affiliated with dragons (including Hiccup’s best human friend-romantic interest Astrid [America Ferrera], with her dragon Stormfly).
But now they face humans from somewhere else, who want to steal and exploit the dragons for use in an army, led by the scar-faced villain Drago (Djimon Hounsou, the film’s only black man set against a white world). You might guess that Drago and his company have no chance to bring a loyal dragon like Toothless to their dark side, but the film deploys a trick, whereby Drago has access to a force that can more or less hypnotize all dragons into obedience to him.
This somewhat cumbersome device—embodied by yet another dragon, an “alpha” of considerable heft and odiousness—stands in for a few ideas here, beginning with an opposition between submission and free will, fear and glee, and tyranny and democracy (such as it is in a Viking community ruled by a loud, imposing chief, here Hiccup’s father Stoick the Vast [Gerard Butler]). As this device poses a threat to the apparently unbreakable bond between Hiccup and Toothless, it also raises questions about how dragons work, magically or otherwise.
At least part of the brilliance of the first film and the start of this one is its investment in the simultaneously familiar and strange representation of dragons as (extra-intelligently) dog-like: again and again, you see Toothless and other dragons playing with sticks and each other in the backgrounds of shots, pets whose people are concerned with serious business but whose cavorting distracts the rest of us, and so provides a frankly more compelling plot, about pets who cavort.
The cavorting defines the dragons, who can, of course, redirect their attention to flying and fighting whenever they need or whenever instinct or devotion to a person calls them. This capacity makes them different from people, and also objects of people’s amusement and wonder and affection. The first film initiated a plot about a dragon-whispering sort of special person, Hiccup, able also to share his skills with other Vikings in Berk. As Hiccup sees it, he can work this same reconciliation magic with Drago’s dragons and also his troops, including the entertainingly lunkheaded Eret, Son of Eret (Kit Harington). If only he can reason with them, Hiccup asserts, he can thwart the war Drago has planned.
Stoick believes otherwise, no surprise (the differences between father and son drive the plot of the first film). The sequel provides an explanation for this difference, an answer that’s potentially refreshing: the boy is like his mother. This discovery is occasioned by Hiccup’s reunion with his mother, conspicuously absent (and thought dead) in the first film. Indeed, Valka (Cate Blanchett) is about as unlike Stoick as a life partner could be, devoted to world peace and quite fond of dragons. She’s also a useful model for Hiccup, setting up an unusual mother-son dynamic that occasionally recalls the glorious mother-daughter bond in Brave, by turns difficult, enchanting, and illuminating.
Here, as Hiccup and Valka see themselves in each other, their primary point of connection is how they also see themselves in their dragons, Toothless and Cloudjumper. Surrounded by dragons on Dragon Island, Valka is at once completely other and utterly the same, rejecting Viking (human) dogma and determined to protect her new family from the terrors of persecution and abuse.
Dragon Island looks a bit like Cesar Milan’s Dog Psychology Center, where dragons learn to live with one another, while helpfully modeling best behaviors for people fortunate enough to visit. And indeed, once the cumbersome device is out of the way, How to Train Your Dragon 2‘s dragons get back to what they do best, cavorting.