How to Train Your Dragon, released back in 2010, was the great redeemer of DreamWorks Animation: the films that proved they could produce something roughly on par with the geniuses at Pixar (or at least maybe produce something better than the Cars movies? The vast majority of Pixar’s movies are still vastly superior to Dragon). In a canny move, DreamWorks hired Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who had worked on a number of Disney productions including the delightful Lilo & Stitch, to bring a fantasy book series to life. Their presence probably accounts for the tone of Dragon: kid-friendly and often funny, but never overeager (like so many DWA cartoons) to prove its adult-sensibility bona fides. It was also beautifully animated, mixing the animators’ love of oblong heads and animal gestures into its dragon lore.
DeBlois and Sanders remain big wheels down at the DreamWorks factory; Sanders worked on another one of the company’s best, last year’s The Croods, while DeBlois wrote and directed How to Train Your Dragon 2, with a third movie slotted for 2016 (along with, at some point, The Croods 2). I don’t doubt their commitment to these stories, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 tries to do right by the audience that made the first one a big beloved hit. Kids will enjoy the high-flying adventure and parents may appreciate the way it ages its characters in real-ish time; Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) has become taller and lankier, though his nasal, slightly marble-mouthed Baruchel cadence remains. Hiccup has led the integration of dragons into his society; now, thanks to their flight, the humans are discovering other worlds beyond their simple town. A bigger scope, buried secrets, and more dragons; it seems like it should work well enough. But despite all of the architecture, How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t particularly good.
It’s difficult, at first, to pinpoint why. The filmmakers don’t sell out their characters or premise. They haven’t added a bevy of pop-culture yuks; Puss in Boots doesn’t make a cameo. But the movie’s “world-building,” as the screenwriter wonks call it, has a perfunctory mythological flatness. It feels like the type of sequel where the original’s success was not taken as a challenge to make something even better and richer, but as a sign that every single thing about the original was great, and can only be improved by imitating and enlarging. So once again the movie opens with patchwork-exposition narration; once again, a cheesy pop song scores a big moment of wonder. Even the material that doesn’t directly call back to the previous film has marks of heavy wear: characters ask Hiccup what he’s searching for; his dad won’t listen; there’s even a parent-related backstory not so far off from what drove Kung Fu Panda 2.
All of the familiarity would matter less with more visual or verbal wit. But Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon “bud,” as he calls him about a thousand times during the movie, doesn’t get to show as much idiosyncrasy this time around, and the movie’s dialogue has plenty of kiddie-movie placeholders, like, “Dragon-riders, coming through!” Hiccup’s gaggle of dragon-riding buddies (voiced by America Ferrara, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) don’t have much to do besides just kind of pop up and vanish as needed, which is a go-to move throughout. Consistency has its perks, too: the animation remains impressive, particularly on all the dragons, great and small. The movie embraces the extremes of the dragon spectrum, throwing in disobedient, zig-zagging babies alongside massive, Godzilla-sized “alphas.” It’s a shame, though, that the new creatures have all the personality of, well, storytelling cogs. Yet the movie’s storytelling doesn’t move with clockwork precision: even at its climax, the main villain (including his ill-defined ability to communication with dragons) feels like an afterthought—or a calculated attempt to set up the third movie.
That villain, in long dreads and an ashier skin tone than anyone else on screen, is voiced by the only major black actor in the film (Djimon Hounsou) and characterized as thirsting only for power and dominion—barely human. I don’t think DeBlois intended him as a figure of black menace, but the unthinking discomfort he causes fits with the movie’s central concerns: how do we serve the franchise? How to Train Your Dragon was a movie; its sequel is more of an entry.
Dragon 2 is tedious enough that I fantasized a little about the mishaps that could lead to a Reign of Fire-style scorched earth for the threequel. But any thoughts of a kicky apocalypse will be dispelled by The Rover, a slog even by the standards of post-apocalyptic thrillers. In a way, it’s the good kind of slog: as directed by David Michod, much of the movie has a hypnotic simplicity. It certainly kicks off with one of the most arresting opening sequences of the year, following a taciturn Guy Pearce driving through post-collapse Australia—played, in a convincing turn, by actual Australia. Pearce stops at one of several dingy roadside operations that sell various combinations of water, gas, ammo, and tins of food. Meanwhile, another car, full of low-level hoodlums (including go-to low-level hoodlum Scoot McNairy), approaches the same makeshift bar in a panic, resulting in an arresting shot of their car sliding past the view of the window as music blaring inside keeps Pearce from noticing, which is how they’re able to steal his car. As Pearce climbs in the abandoned truck and takes off after the gang in a chase low on firepower but high on tension, The Rover resembles a Mad Max prequel—the seed of the apocalyptic outback to come.
The electricity of these opening minutes doesn’t last, though there are some sparks between Pearce and Robert Pattinson, whom Pearce requisitions to help find his car. Pattinson, twitching and taking in little gulps of air, plays a bit broad with his American yokel accent, but he’s affecting, both as the character and (like Kristen Stewart) in his absolute lack of interest in playing up his Twilight swooniness. Michod seems happy to play along, to the extent that he seems happy at all; I’m not sure The Rover really earns its tone of mournful cruelty. It’s entirely watchable, but you kinda have to roll with the notion that Pearce wants to pursue his car across great distances using another well-running car, and that his carnappers insist on not swapping cars back; this is one of those movies that withholds information by having its characters engage in endless line of questions and evasions (punctuated by occasional horrible violence). It’s better when it keeps things quiet, or at least succinct, as with this priceless piece of backstory: “I was a farmer, now I’m here.” About sums it up, huh?