The main thing that I’ve learned from my years as an amateur raconteur is that the most powerful tool in the storytelling toolbox is the ellipsis. Bad storytellers put too much emphasize on mundane details, or are in such a rush to get to the punchline that leave out crucial parts of the set up until it's too late. If you want to tell a story well, you have to add in enough detail to make the picture you're painting seem vivid, but you also want to keep your yarn lean enough that it gets wrapped up before your audience gets bored. As the saying goes: the devil is in the details.
When it comes to the little details, How To Train Your Dragon 2 has a mixed record. As with the first movie, the story centers on a young man named Hiccup and his pet dragon Toothless, and both characters are well fleshed out. Hiccup has a few personal issues – in the last film he had drama with his father, this time around it is with his mother - and those issues are just enough to make him seem like a real person without being so much that he comes across as being too emo. And Toothless is a wonder of animation: he communicates so well with his big green eyes and fluid body movements that it’s not an issue that he’s mute. Toothless is just as good at being the side kick who rolls his eyes when the hero does something dumb as he is at being the fearsome dragon who has to fight foes.
It's the foe-fighting that has me concerned. You see, Hiccup and Toothless are heading towards a showdown with the power mad Drago Bloodfist, who has a "level 10 behemoth" at his command. This alpha dragon is really well rendered, a staggering, sneering monster. In fact, he might be a little too well rendered.
Since I'm in the last generation who grew up on pre-CGI effects I think a lot about the difference between the handmade marvels of my youth and the more modern monsters that populate films now. There's a basic level where Bloodfist's alpha dragon is very similar to the sort of beast you might see in a Godzilla movie. However, there's one big difference: technicians poured thousands of hours into making every pore in the dragon's face look plausible, whereas I think the main concern in most Godzilla movies was "is his zipper showing?"
When Godzilla went to kick a building it was never very scary because it never seemed liked a real building; the cardboard cutouts that he was kicking were missing all of the little details that would make them seem real. In contrast, when the alpha dragon tries to kill Hiccup it seems all too real - especially since there are some real deaths in this movie. As an adult, I can appreciate how good this movie looks, but that verisimilitude comes at the cost of making this movie a bit scarier than I think a kids movie should be.
I'm not just being an old fogey on this point. (Although I am kind of being an old fogey.) The first How To Train Your Dragon had it's moments of violence, but overall it was a sweet story about two misfits finding each other. The bulk of that movie's middle was made up of scenes of Hiccup and Toothless learning to fly together, and those scenes conveyed a very real sense of freedom and fun. That sense of levity is really missing from the sequel, because a lot of the flight scenes here are based around violence - our heroes have taken to the air because they have to fight pirates, or they are soaring into battle against Drago. The film’s animation is so smooth that every aerial scene conveys a certain amount of visual wonder, but the story’s grimmer elements really undercut it’s appeal.
I don’t want to imply that there is no fun to be had at this movie, because there are some great scenes, and again, Toothless is a great character. But I do think that if some of the gnarlier details had been excised with an ellipsis - if they had removed some scales, maybe a few teeth, from the alpha dragon - the movie would be a lot more enjoyable, particularly for younger viewers, who would probably be more comfortable with a more cartoony villain. After all, that’s one of the biggest strengths of the ellipsis – it allows a storyteller to tailor their tale to their audience. You would probably leave out a few raunchy details if you were telling a funny story to your mom, and maybe How To Train Your Dragon should have left out a few ferocious details for the kids.