Movie review: ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’

(Rated PG; directed by Dean DeBlois; stars Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Craig Ferguson; run time: 102 minutes.)

Film’s grown-up concepts warrant discussions about friendship, loyalty, acceptance, family

By Ted Giese

Building on the original film’s story of complementary parts making a whole, and how a change of perspective can improve a person’s overall outlook on life, DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2” again focuses on themes of friendship, loyalty and acceptance.

As in the first film, another big element of this film is family and family life. On the surface this sounds like boilerplate children’s movie material; however, it’s good to remember that these themes include a complex series of grown-up concepts and ideas. These are imbedded in the film because grown-ups write children’s movies. Parents watching “How to Train Your Dragon 2” with their children may want to keep this in mind and be careful not to immediately recite the mantra most Hollywood producers want parents to say: “It’s just a kids movie.”

In “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the idyllic Viking island of Berk is threatened by the mysterious Drago (Djimon Hounsou) and his rumored dragon army. Fearing for the island’s safety, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the son of the island’s chief, sets out to try to reason with Drago and avert the end of Berk’s now peaceful cohabitation with dragons. Along the way Hiccup is forced to deal with the prospects of leadership and some complex and unexpected family relationships.

Yes, there are dragons, for the most part colorful and fun, and there are more of them than in the first film from 2010. And yes, the computer animation is world-class, the voice acting strong, and the pacing good. Without any technical issues with the filmmaking, attention moves to the story and those grown-up themes and ideas.

Setting the film five years after the first film places the original characters in their late teens to early 20s, injecting the film with ideas of romantic coupling and a general interest in grown-up relationships. These range from a traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship on the path to an engagement — as seen with the central character of Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera) — to the teenage “love-sick” relationships swirling around the character of Ruffnut Thorston (Kristen Wiig) to less-traditional relationships.

First consider Ruffnut, who shows little interest in the devotion and attentions of her male counterparts from the island of Berk, spurning their advances and affections while (and this is intended to be the humorous part) falling headlong for a minor redeemable villain, Eret, Son of Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon-poacher working for the film’s big villain, Drago.

This side storyline sticks out for one particular reason: Ruffnut is shown ogling Eret’s muscles as he does “masculine” things like turning cranks and pulling levers. The camera cuts to a slow-motion close-up of what Ruffnut is seeing, intercut with her expressions as she gazes at Eret. This “comical” reversal of what’s been called the “male gaze” occurs more than once, and if it were reversed to an actual male gazing at a female, it would easily garner the film a different rating.

It’s fair to say it would be deemed inappropriate for a children’s/family movie to show a teenage boy ogling isolated body parts of a young woman — repeatedly — in slow-motion close-ups regardless of whether it’s intended to be humorous or not. Parents need to consider whether humor excuses this sexualization.

The film also contains a brief nod to a nontraditional kind of relationship when the character Gobber (Craig Ferguson), upon watching Hiccup’s mother and father argue with each other, comments, “This is why I never got married … that, and one other reason.”

This throwaway line goes by quickly, but parents may want to take note and be prepared to talk about this if their children ask, “Why doesn’t Gobber want to marry a girl?” The film’s director and writer, Dean DeBlois, who is openly gay, took Ferguson’s ad-libbed line as an indication of Gobber’s sexual orientation and kept it in the film. “E!” reports DeBlois saying, “I love the idea that Gobber is Berk’s resident gay.” Hollywood seems very happy with the inclusion of this grown-up idea added into this children’s film.

Gobber’s comment comes in a part of the film where Hiccup’s father, Stoick, is seeing his wife, Valka (Cate Blanchett), for the first time after 20 years of thinking she was dead. Valka had been carried off by a dragon in a dragon raid on the island of Berk and was presumed eaten or otherwise killed by the dragons. More than the brief revelation concerning Gobber, parents may want to consider the complex series of grown-up concepts and ideas brought into film by the addition of Hiccup’s long-lost mother. At this point it will be necessary to spoil a couple plot points.

The family dynamic between Hiccup and his parents is an area where “How to Train Your Dragon 2” cranks up the emotional manipulation. Children whose parents are split up generally go through an intense period of desiring their parents to be together again. They hope the estrangement, separation and divorce could be whisked away and for things to be the way they were before they went sour.

In short order, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” provides this hoped-for resolution. This is classic wish fulfillment. It will hit at the secret — or not-so-secret — desires of many of the film’s viewers.

Twenty years melts away in minutes, and Hiccup, Stoick and Valka are again a happy, traditional family. Hiccup goes from not knowing his mother was still alive, to accepting her as his mother, to having his parents back together, to … what? This is where the monkey-wrench comes in. Hollywood couldn’t leave this reunited traditional family intact. At the apex of the film’s story, Hiccup’s father sacrifices himself to save his son, even though it was his son’s disobedience that brought them to the confrontation requiring the sacrifice. In both of the films, the plot is driven by Hiccup’s disobedience toward his father, who isn’t just Hiccup’s father but also the chief of the Vikings on the island of Berk.

Some parting thoughts about the character of Stoick. Unlike King Stephan (Sharlto Copley), the clearly evil father in the recent Disney film “Maleficent,” Stoick is depicted as being concerned and loving toward his son rather than self-centered or stupid. He is shown as being dedicated not only to his son but also to the people of Berk, whom he governs.

Stoick seeks his son out when Hiccup runs off, and he loves his long-lost wife with all his heart. In almost every way, Stoick is positive and surprisingly atypical for a Hollywood father character, which makes it all the more puzzling why Hiccup is so disobedient.

Gone is the Hollywood convention of making the father a jerk or dimwitted, thereby providing a justification for the child’s disobedience. Hiccup, viewed through the lens of his father, takes on qualities of the Prodigal Son from the parable of the Lost Son told by Jesus in Luke 15, except in “How to Train Your Dragon 2” Hiccup has no dutiful older brother, and his father is dead before they can be entirely reconciled.

Of interest is the fact that the film was released on Father’s Day weekend, adding additional weight to these particular threads within the story, although the impact of Stoick’s death won’t likely be diminished when viewed at a later date.

For the last 20 years or so, Hollywood has moved away from the idea of films aimed directly at children to movies intended for the whole family. As a result, material intended for the grown-ups in the audience is added. Some believe these additions largely go over the heads of the children viewers, but one has to ask, “Do they really go over their heads, or do they impact the youngest of viewers?”

While it is conceivable that a large number of young children could miss the implied meaning of Gobber’s brief comment, or not understand why Ruffnut is acting so weirdly around all the men who surround her, it is inconceivable that small children wouldn’t pick up on the relationship between Hiccup’s parents or his relationship to them as individuals. Likewise, the death of a parent in a film like this needs to be talked about, as a child watching the movie won’t miss this point.

With the inclusion of grown-up concepts and ideas comes the responsibility of teaching and talking to young viewers about modern ideas of friendship, loyalty, acceptance and family as compared and contrasted with biblical examples. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is not a shallow film, and families planning to see it — or families who have seen it already — need to look past the colorful dragons and talk about the story the film tells and the relationships it depicts.

The Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program.

Posted June 20, 2014


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6 Responses to Movie review: ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’

  1. June 25, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    As a Lutheran..can we not watch a movie purely for its aesthetic appeal. .. no underlying themes, no hidden meanings…purely for the enjoyment of watching a movie?

    • michael piper June 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      You could watch a movie for its aesthetic appeal, but all language has meaning, and certainly movies too. The author is communicating something. What is he trying to say? If I were writing and directing a movie, and no one got my message, I would feel like a failure. So…is language what the speaker means or what the hearer hears? It’s the message that counts.

  2. jim hanson June 25, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    It’s a movie for entertainment. Why do you have to dissect it?

  3. p j mcconoughey June 25, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    When you talk about this movie, are you talking about pre-teens and above? My 6-yr-old great grandson loved the first and he even watched it with me so I could see it too. Funny that I haven’t seen anything on the LCMS site regarding other movies, so why is this one being criticized so negatively? Reminds me of the Harry Potter era and the criticism it got. Well hubby and I went to almost every one of the movies with our grandson and thoroughly enjoyed them. Then we listened to the audio when we went to the West coast and again simply enjoyed them. If my ggson wants to talk about the movie beyond “I really liked it, when can I see again?” then it will be dealt with. I wonder how many are watching it to find out what are the problem scenes. I also wonder how many parents have contacted you re issues in your review. Just wondering.

  4. Nancy Johnsen June 26, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    I actually hope to see in a movie some of the themes that I am personally struggling with. Themes such as the value of loyalty and faithfulness among family members and friends; the value of struggling to persevere in keeping a relationship going. What is H-Wood afraid of? Virtue being overtly displayed? We need more models of virtue. That is what makes a movie enjoyable to me. That said, I also enjoy mindless action movies like Iron Man 3, so go figure.

  5. katy June 26, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    Thank you for this thoughtful review. I wonder sometimes at how we can study about our Lord Jesus and listen to his Word to be sober and watchful that our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour and then pretend we aren’t at war. When we get uptight about someone taking an honest look at the worldview and message of entertainment I have to ask why? Are the writers of films not telling a story? Does their definition of a good story not express a view? Should we just trust them? Praise God that he has provided us with his Word and Sacraments. That he fights for us and he is our Sabbath rest.

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