Notes from 2019: On Two Animated Sequels


Of the five movies I’ve seen in a theater so far this year (an awfully low number for my personal standards aka “hello fatherhood”) two have been horror films and three have been animated films. Aside from my second viewing of the very excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, the other two have a lot in common. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World both are sequels to highly successful and beloved animation franchises, two of the few outside of Disney/Pixar. Both have some continuity in their creative teams, with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller writing and producing Lego 2 and director Dean DeBlois overseeing the finale of his How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. Their most important connection, however, is their respective qualities, how they follow up on their giant predecessors. Specifically: they are both fine.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part continues to capture the hectic, fast, zany pacing and creativity that have made the Lego franchise distinctive among animated fare. So much happens in the movie that it is tough to recount the exact narrative in detail, especially a few weeks removed from seeing it, but let me try: every-man hero Emmet (Chris Pratt) is back after saving the world from the throes of Lord Business only to find continuous attacks on his world from alien forces. The world is no longer so awesome, but a ravaged Mad Max-esque deserted landscape. As he’s ready to take his relationship with Wyldstyle to the next level, she is taken into space, along with other notable friends, and held captive by Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi. Meanwhile, Emmet comes into contact with space pirate Rex Dangervest, who gives him the strength and courage to rescue his friends. Those are the basics, but so much more is revealed along the way.

Part of the joy of The Lego Movie in 2014 was its narrative audacity. No one expected a movie about Lego bricks could be so formally creative. The animation was like nothing ever seen before. More importantly, the film’s major theme is downright radical. In a time when fandom was becoming increasingly toxic, when the norms and rules had to be followed (the Ghost Busters can’t be women! Nobodies like Rey can’t use the Force! etc. etc.), The Lego Movie explicitly said no. We can be more creative when it comes to our art and storytelling, no one has the right to say what is wrong or right when it comes to how things have been done before.

And this is where The Lego Movie 2 falls a bit. It’s not that it reverts or takes away from that message, it’s just that its major theme is something entirely mainstream for animated films today. The film uses the break into reality which was so surprising in its predecessor much more often, with a slightly older Finn having to incorporate his time with his favorite toys with his younger sister (played by The Florida Project’s Brooklyn Prince)—moving right on from The Lego Movie’s final joke. Nothing about how the theme of getting along with others (especially younger sisters) is played wrong, it just doesn’t have the same film breaking quality.

On its own, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is absolutely fine. It has some creative characters, the animation is still stellar, and while it isn’t as laugh-a-minute funny as The Lego Movie or especially The Lego Batman Movie, it is an entertaining romp. Maybe I unfairly expected too much from it, alas, it didn’t meet those lofty expectations.

As for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I have far less to say because it just isn’t as interesting. Again, this is a perfectly fine film, far better than the glut of animated films that don’t have this level of ambition or resources. But this is far more standard as an animated franchise than The Lego Movie. Maybe I’m just not as personally invested in How to Train Your Dragon—I’m with the masses who think the first one is great and I can’t remember much of anything about the lackluster sequel. The Hidden World maybe falls somewhere in the middle but closer on the side of the second film entirely for its memorable and emotionally resonant ending (even if a little unearned).

Following the unremembered events of How to Train Your Dragon 2 (I honestly forgot there wasn’t even a subtitle on there), the world of dragons and humans is fully intertwined, causing logistical problems for young leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Keeping his people happy and the buildings still standing is becoming more difficult, let alone a new threat in dragon slayer Grimmel personally targeting Hiccup’s beloved pal Toothless, and so the small community set out to find a safe space in the world. Their adventure leads to the mythical Hidden World where dragons roam free, stirring up the emotional conflict of whether Hiccup and pals should let their dragons live their own lives.

The parallels to Toy Story 3, probably the most important animated trilogy ending (that for some reason is continuing on later this year), are in your face and remembering that film certainly takes a lot out of the enjoyment for The Hidden World. This probably isn’t a problem for young fans of the franchise and I can imagine the final moments of the film, involving a flash-forward to how the relationship between an older Hiccup and Toothless comes to an end, packs a punch. It even worked a bit for me though everything that led up to these final moments (including almost the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon 2) was treading water.

It is hard to expect sequels of any kind to have the same creativity or impact of the films that launch franchises and both The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World do fall short. It is probably a better and fairer test to continue their stories in a consistent way, building on the characters and worlds. To that end, these films do fine.