This past weekend, a good friend of mine (whose love for children’s films borders on the obsessive) and I went to see the much-anticipated sequel to the Dreamworks film How to Train Your Dragon. I was nervous about this sequel, because sequels are pretty consistently terrible (especially where children’s films are concerned, with the notable exception of Toy Story), and I happen to love the first film and didn’t want its memory tarnished by a sub-par follow-up. Turns out, I needn’t have worried; How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a lovely film that I highly recommend you go see, though not if you haven’t seen the first one because it relies rather heavily on the original plot to make sense.
Because it’s so rare that a sequel turn out so well, especially in a children’s franchise, I decided to take the time to identify what How to Train Your Dragon 2 does so well that so many other sequels miss, because it really is a stellar example of the form. And I am going to (attempt to) do it without spoilers. Onward!
1. It plays up its strengths.
In order for a film to gain enough popularity to become a franchise, it has to have something that gets audiences really excited–something that makes people want to talk about it. Think about Shrek, and its blending of a fairytale world with mundane everyday life problems; Mulan, and its overly excited gender-bending with requisite jokes (complete with manhood-affirming musical number); Lion King and its soundtrack, which is so good that literally every song will be stuck in your head all at once. For each of these movies, that something-new that made the first movie so good was utterly lacking in the sequels: Shrek traded everyday life humor for low-hanging pop culture references, Mulan 2 completely abandoned the gender-bending across the boards, and I can’t name a single song off either Lion King 2 or Lion King 1 1/2. Too often, sequels ignore what made the first film good in the first place.
Not so with How to Train Your Dragon 2. Dreamworks is under no illusions; they know that the first movie sold on the basis of how freaking adorable all the dragons are, especially Toothless with his catdog-like behavior (and, to a lesser extent, the sibling-like relationship between Hiccup and Toothless), and they gave those same antics tons of room to breathe in the sequel. You know how Game of Thrones buries its exposition scenes under boobs and sex? How to Train Your Dragon 2 does that with adorable dragons behaving like house pets. It’s a blatant exposition-dumping ploy and I’m not even mad.
2. The protagonist had room to grow.
I think I mentioned this when I was talking about terrible sequels, but one of the main problems with a sequel comes from the hero’s journey model most movies follow, which mandates that the protagonist start the film with a personality flaw and then end the film having recognized and solved that flaw. Wrapping up a character’s problems at the end of the film is a great catharsis for the first movie, but it leaves the second film with very little to work with. You have to have the same protagonist, but how do you create a second discover-flaw-and-fix-it character arc for someone who already solved their major problem the first time around? Most sequels either invent an entirely new (and unconvincing) flaw, or they re-open the old one and have them solve it again, both of which are boring and kind of annoying to watch.
With How to Train Your Dragon, though, we only solve half of Hiccup’s problem. He saves the dragons using his smarts, and earns his father’s respect, but he doesn’t master the ideal viking behavior his father expects of him, or change that expectation. Sure, at the end of the film he gets the girl and everybody gets dragons, but he’s still a scrawny kid with big ideas that scare people and an overbearing father who is not so good at listening. That’s a natural jumping-off point for personal discovery in a sequel, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 dives into the problem head first.
3. The story built upon itself.
Finally, we have to talk about stakes. There’s an overtly insisted-upon rule in the screenwriting world that if you can raise the stakes (what happens if the plot doesn’t end well), you should. Drive those consequences up as high as you possibly can to stress your audience out as much as possible before the resolution. This is what makes the first film exciting, but it often leaves nowhere for the second film to go. How do you top “the world is going to end and everybody is going to die” when it comes time for the second movie’s stakes? You can’t just say “the whole world is going to end AGAIN,” because audiences get bored of that very quickly (remember Heroes? This was the fatal flaw in Heroes–season 1 stakes went all the way up to “ending time itself,” and there was nowhere to go in subsequent seasons). How to Train Your Dragon cranks the stakes all the way up to “all the dragons and vikings will kill each other,” which is pretty damn high. How do you top that?
How to Train Your Dragon 2 answers this question by expanding the world, thereby creating more interesting places and people/creatures to threaten with the plot. They also expand our understanding of dragons, making the loss of even one that much more upsetting, so when the ultimate everything-is-going-to-die shit hits the fan (as it must), you feel like there is even more at stake than there was in the first film. The sequel expands the world in a believable way, and then puts it all on the line. Are the stakes really that much higher? Well, no–it’s still your basic “everybody will die” plot line. But that “everybody” is a lot bigger and more interesting, so it matters more.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a perfect film and there are things I could complain about in it, but on the whole I’m so pleased with what they got right that I’m not even going to talk about the wobbly bits. It’s great. This is how you sequel. Now give me an adorable pet dragon and nobody gets hurt.
“So…what should we name it? … Itchy Armpit it is.” -Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon 2