Ok, let’s bounce around between a number of different thoughts here. First off, I adore How to Train Your Dragon. And when I say adore, I mean that I once spent a full week watching the first movie every night, and every single time it made me smile and laugh and cry and just feel so many things. The first movie is without a doubt my desert island movie, the one movie I could rewatch for the rest of my life and all that nonsense. Yet as much as I love the first movie to no end, I have only ever seen the second one once. Just once. It was good that one time I saw it, for sure. It still had the same outstanding music and breathtakingly beautiful moments, and it even added some adorable interactions between Hiccup and Astrid. Yet I still only saw it once (even if I rewatched the Jonsi flying scene on youtube an embarrassing number of times). Then sure enough, the third movie came out and largely maintained the same mood and atmosphere as the second. Sure its ending left me bawling my eyes out, but up until that point I had felt a great deal of frustration with the film.
Let’s start with the easiest thing to point my finger at and progress from there:
The side characters get way too much screen time in the sequels and cross the line from endearing to downright annoying. With each sequel’s time skip, our main characters grow and mature. It’s all the more frustrating, then, to see the side characters keep up the same immature unfunny jokes as before. In the second movie, the line was crossed with Ruffnut’s obsession with Jon Snow’s muscles, and in the third it was crossed with literally everything (all the childish bickering, Ruffnut’s continuing to be grating any time she’s onscreen, and Snotlout’s posturing that comes across as cringy instead of amusing). This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the movies didn’t give these characters specific arcs and extra screen-time compared to the first.
With a greater focus on the side characters, it only follows that the sequels focus a bit less on Hiccup and Toothless than the first movie did. This is understandable, of course, since Hiccup and Toothless already did all of their growing and bonding in the first movie. Yes, their relationship still develops in the sequels, and the scenes in which it does are far and away the best moments of the movies. However, their friendship goes from the absolute core of the first movie to a one of a few key focal points of the sequels.
The sequels feel much more fast-paced, with all the story events unfolding in just a day or two. This isn’t an inherently bad quality, but it feels distinctly different than the first’s pacing. It also makes us unable to linger as much in the emotional moments. The plot has to keep moving, and we need to move on with it.
There’s far less conflict between the characters we feel sympathetic toward and far greater conflict between entities of pure good and pure evil. In the first movie, the major sources of conflict are between Hiccup and his father, Hiccup and Astrid, and Hiccup and his village. With the entire village now on Hiccup’s side in the sequels, the writers instead opt for the far less dynamic conflict between good and evil. Once again, not an inherently bad conflict to build a movie around (plenty of amazing movies make it work), but one that feels very different than the first’s. And before you mention it, yes, there is a big evil dragon at the end of the first movie. However, the question is not “can Hiccup defeat this massive evil entity” but “can Stoic and Hiccup finally learn to trust each other?”
You’ve likely guessed where this is heading already (if only from the title of the post) so…
When it comes down to it, the HTTYD sequels are stories about heroes fighting villains to save the day. Their entire structures are built around villains who drive the story forward and force the heroes to take time-sensitive action, a quality that the first one very much didn’t have. The original movie was structured around Hiccup and Toothless learning to trust in one another and bridge the gap between humans and dragons. It was only at the end that a big evil monster was introduced, and that big monster was never the agent driving the story forward. Characters like Hiccup, Toothless, and Stoic maintained full agency and caused all the story events to unfold. Furthermore, without the looming threat of an evil bad guy in the foreground, our feelings for the characters can easily grow and develop with every bonding moment between Hiccup and Toothless. In the sequels, however, we get those endearing slice-of-life moments amidst an externally-motivated plot that sweeps our characters up in it. We must deal with “insert villain here” or else he’ll take away our dragons. Sure, it’s not a bad reason to kick the plot into gear, but it leaves less room to linger in HTTYD’s fantastic character moments and captivating world. Then there’s the fact that both of the sequels take place over the course of 2-3 days, which gives us even less time to just hang out with the best duo in cinematic history. Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of these villain plot-lines that are handled extremely well. The two big bads are able to push Toothless and Hiccup’s friendship in some really interesting ways. However, the emotional core of the series is, and has always been, character relationships. We don’t care about Hiccup and Toothless because they fought off some guy who was after them (or even because they ideologically overcame him), we care about them because of that time Hiccup ate a fish that Toothless threw back up, or that time they both tried to fly and Hiccup had to abandon his cheat sheet and trust in his newfound friend, or that time when they raced across the sky with that Jonsi song playing that makes me want to cry and wow their theme is SO. FREAKING. GOOD. But yeah. That’s what makes us care. We don’t need a villain. For crying out loud, the third movie could have JUST been looking for the hidden world, finding another night fury, and Hiccup having to wrestle with the idea of Toothless wanting to be with his own people. Um, dragons. His own dragons. That’s internal conflict, that’s emotional drama, and that’s a movie all on its own. Just look at Ghibli movies like Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, neither of which have any remote sense of a villain and manage to be all the better without one. You don’t need a villain to make a movie work, and often shoehorning one in comes at the detriment to the story being told. It’s high time Dreamworks (and Pixar for that matter) realized this.
Please, Pixar, for the love of everything that is amazing about animation, stop shoving villains and action scenes into movies that don’t need them. It always feels forced, it’s always the worst part of the movie, and it always leads to a lackluster final act. So please just stop. What’s the best part of Up? The opening, Carl and Russel exploring the island, and funny interactions between the two of them and Dug. What’s the worst part? The stupid action scene at the end where you have two old guys fist fighting and dogs flying prop planes. What’s the best part of Wall-e? Seeing Wall-e’s daily life, watching him try to woo Eve, watching the captain learn about Earth, and seeing Wall-e and Eve dance together in space. What’s the worst part? The chase sequence at the end and the fight between the captain and the evil autopilot. Sometimes it’s not even a villain problem but a last-minute action scene problem. Inside Out, Coco, Monster’s Inc., and even Finding Dory suffer from this. I love most of these movies to death, but sometimes I feel like Pixar doesn’t think kids would stay interested if there wasn’t some sort of hectic and action-packed to keep them interested……which is strange when considering Pixar is already the best at respecting children’s intelligence with their kids movies. There are exceptions of course, with The Incredibles integrating its villain extremely well into the whole story and Ratatouille having a decidedly not action-packed but really satisfying climax. However, the trend still remains, and it never fails to annoy me.