Hey, remember when I said that Dreamworks had risen above deserving kudos for pleasant mediocrity? I did not think we’d be returning to that comment so soon, but then I ended up going to the movies this weekend.
Last week I spent a good deal of time lauding quite justifiable praise onto How to Train Your Dragon for its tightly plotted story and believable world inhabited by likable characters. Its sequel…does not get the same lofty position in this little comparative game. But! Despite what might seem like the intuitive choice, we’re not going to measure How to Train Your Dragon 2 against its predecessor. Same world aside, sequels have a different burden of expectation upon them. Only another sequel will do. Let’s bring out the pandas.
Build on the Canon
The entire purpose of a sequel is to further explore the potential of an existing world or set of characters in a meaningful way. But more often than not the creators will back away from this precipice, instead either resetting the character development from the last film or (particularly in children’s films) repeating the lessons of the first film with the spawn of the original cast. Both Dragon 2 and Panda 2 accomplish this basic water mark, automatically putting them at a higher standing ground than many of their contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Blue Sky Pictures).
Both pictures came from first installments with self-contained narratives but open potential for future stories. In other words, they come to something of a plateau without answering every potential question (as opposed to a first film that is clearly designed with major unresolved threads that lead the audience into the next installment). Think of it as a Star Wars versus Lord of the Rings approach, the former being a decided case of bets hedging that also gave us one of the greatest movie sequels of all time. From there, we enter a new potential split: the serial (Indiana Jones) versus arc (Star Wars again) release. Panda 2 elects to take the latter, while Dragon 2 takes the former. This is where we start getting into problems.
The serial format, you see, means that no matter how many sequels you do each story must continue to be self-contained in nature (you’ll note that both Dragon films open and close with the same style of narration, as though they are a very long television episode). There might be a new character or set of circumstances, but the character arcs will remain in a place of stability. It’s the safer choice, stepping away from the risks that the first film’s creative team was unafraid of taking. Far more damningly, Hiccup’s arc is completely independent of where the film needs him to be, position wise, at the end in order to tie things off neatly, forcing the point with a blunt-ended writing decision rather than the character reaching the decision of his own volition (placing it as the only narrative choice when there are plenty of other options, including that very well-marketed new character or the far more interesting storyline they could’ve told with Astrid). Hiccup in the first film feels there is no place for him in society and sets about trying to create a place through what he has learned. Hiccup in the second film wants to learn more about the world but is arbitrarily forced to shoulder the traditional roles of society. One seems rather less interesting than the other, if not undercutting it entirely.
Kung Fu Panda 2, by contrast, opts for the narrative arc of storytelling. Its first film focused on the Dragon Warrior story while quietly placing a background plot about Po’s parents that pays off as a gag (call it the Darth Vader escape pod of subplots). It wasn’t dangling enough to be obtrusive, but it was something that could obviously be developed later (as opposed to the ending of the first Dragon movie, which didn’t really have lingering questions about things we were previously invested in so much as it had cool dragons and worlds that might contain anything…which is much harder to build from for such a constricted format).
When the second film came along, Po’s questions about his parentage both highlighted his maturity and character development while returning to the uncertainty at the character’s heart. His questions were also the audience’s questions, and there was an intense sense of investment in finding things out “together,” as it were. New aspects about the story’s world were disclosed without losing sight of that central struggle, and the answer led naturally into a hook for another (possibly conclusive) story. It is a “Yes And” of a film, understanding what made the first good while trying to top it at every turn, narratively and visually.
This is part, but not all, of the new movie’s biggest problem: there is way too much going on, and the wide spectrum of interesting ideas isn’t given room to breathe. Ideas that could fill their own film become subplots to feed the 100 minute grind, touched on but never allowed the opportunity to resonate with the audience. Said subplots are even interestingly set up, offering a tantalizing glimpse of potential that is always ignored in favor of a much safer, more predictable turn of narrative: Astrid and Hiccup’s relationship is far more interesting than it was in the first movie (where it was painfully token), but the potential question of who might be more willing and suited for leadership gets tossed out after one scene in favor of Supportive Girlfriend-itis (which needn’t have conflicted with the first thing anyway); Hiccup’s mother could have easily filled a film by itself, a retcon that is fairly easy to forgive but is also little more than a means of introducing dragon-y plot devices and then turning Mom into the dragon fantasy version of Worf; the villain is neither a well-formed character or a gravitas-emanating threat despite his hilariously over the top name (which I immediately forgot in favor of calling him Sad Arm Viking, since that is his given, if nonsensical in light of his actions, motivation), and brings the cool battle scenes without giving us anything to grab onto or invest in, and taking screen time away from the actually kind of interesting Kit Harrington trapper.
It’s a film that was breathlessly excited to do everything at once, churning out the same number of beats that took Avatar an entire season to cover effectively (familial revelations, cultural clash, finding one’s place in the world, discovering new things, facing a morally ambiguous threat, facing a really evil threat, suffering major loss and its repercussions). In light of all that it’s difficult to care over-much about any of it, leaving one in a glazed over state of ‘huh’ that occasional rouses itself for those very, very pretty graphics and thinks about what could have been this or that wonderful emotional hook.
For all your emotionally devastated reaction needs
As you might have guessed, the movie about the martial arts mammal is far more streamlined and focused in knowing what story it wants to tell. Each threat the film presents is a preamble to the main villain in a way that is cohesive and links back to the source (as opposed to sort of all happening at once, a la the giant dragon battles). Shen, in turn, is inextricably linked with the emotionally journey that Po is on, while also being far cooler and more terrifying than nature’s most ridiculous bird has any right to be.
Connecting the hero and the villain to the same central plot and emotional issue (the panda genocide) not only keeps the plot constantly hammering home on what’s important but also enriches what we learn about all the characters involved. Shen is hardly a redeemable character, but there’s a sense to what makes him tick, and Gary Oldman’s performance is allowed to be versatile and engaging if just short of Tim Curry-level ham. Other characters aren’t ignored, but they exist in relation to the greater sense of urgency and plot, with minor development serving to lay potential for future stories down the line (much as the parent issue was used in the first film). And at the same time, the simplicity of the story allows for more action (which is undeniably, breathtakingly gorgeous stuff), more banter, more quiet character moments, without feeling overly cluttered or confusing.
Less results in more, and it leaves a stronger impact on the audience as to what was important. And with the time that wasn’t rushing toward keeping itself contained (though the plot with Shen does resolve itself in a satisfying manner), the film is able to entice its audience with what might lie around the next corner. That, rather than throwing a bunch of new information and tying it off (as if in terror that this installment of the mammoth cash cow franchise might tank if all things are not put adequately to rest) is how you keep the people coming back.