How to Train Your Audience

I imagine deep underground DreamWorks headquarters hides the formula to making a blockbuster animated film. Let’s call it How to Train Your Audience. The logic behind the document is sound: animated films are an expensive endeavor and getting the optimal blend of safety and freshness from both original ideas and sequels is the best way to put audiences in seats and give them a few hours of surefire enjoyment. How to Train your Dragon 2 enters theaters as the latest expression of this formula. And as the formula predicts, that’s not a bad thing.

unnamed-1In the first movie, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless established a peace amongst the Vikings of Berk and the races of dragons. In this sequel, Hiccup must commit to the increasing pressures of being heir to his father, Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), and to the responsibilities of one day being chief. But the world outside Berk is largely unknown and Hiccup is willing to neglect his administrative duties to find out just how big the world is. Hiccup soon runs into the other inhabitants of this bigger world – among them, the mysterious dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) and Eret (Kit Harington), a bounty hunter working for an old rival of Stoick – Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Hiccup’s curiosity places the fate of Berk directly in their plans.

The world of Berk and beyond are beautiful; the filmmakers have taken the best parts of the first How to Train Your Dragon, Disney’s Brave, and Cameron’s Avatar to create this potent flavor of eye candy. They’ve built a living world existing between the real and the computer cell. They’ve pushed the points of their models so that there’s a weight, a history in which the characters naturally exist.

The technical achievement of creating this world is saved from being an expensive tech demo by the flow of a tight narrative. Hiccup doesn’t have the voice or sultry eyelashes of a Disney Princess to command his own take on the “Let it Go” chorus, but he has the reliability of the prototypical awkward teen. It plays well off the mimed humor of Toothless.

At times, the formula seeps through and the film feels like a paint-by-the-numbers affair. The plot moves in the typical Pixar/DreamWorks fashion and the characters grow and evolve and learn the lessons of so many children’s movies. But the numbers paint such a beautiful and efficient picture, the whole doesn’t suffer in any meaningful way.

While this seems like a home run for DreamWorks, there are rumblings of a protest. Buried in the typical nods to parents is one ad-libbed line by Gobber (Craig Ferguson): “This is why I never married. This and one other reason.” Dean DeBlois, the film’s director, has since stated the line is an intentional reference to Gobber’s homosexuality.

Now while it’s easy to see why this is the doom of the heterosexual parent (perhaps even of all heterosexuals everywhere), we must ask:  even with this knowledge, will kids question their sexuality due to this subtle joke? Or will they, not yet burdened by the ionized charge of American politics, simply laugh and disregard it in favor of the colorful dragons in the rest of the movie? Did they know the movie had an insidious agenda before their parents told them?

Maybe that’s the freshness part of the How to Train Your Audience formula. Then again, maybe it doesn’t mean all that much.