Given the logistical undertaking of making a movie franchise out of big-studio animation, it must be a blessed relief not to have to include live-action performers in the mix. Voice actors can often fit their performances into packed schedules, they can change their appearance without affecting production, they can let natural aging take its course—and if the studio’s hand is forced, they can be replaced with minimal fuss.
It’s notable, then, that the sequels to the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon have decided not to take advantage of the medium’s potential for eternal youth. The first movie is about a Viking teenager’s bond with the dragon he’s supposed to be hunting; in the sequels, released in 2014 and now in 2019, the boy ages more or less in parallel with the passage of real-world time. He’s taller and more assured in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and in The Hidden World he’s old enough to lead his tribe and think about getting married. Another recent (mostly) animated sequel aimed at kids, The Lego Movie 2, also works the passage of five years into its storyline. The walking, talking Lego minifigs who populate the movie don’t suffer much wear and tear, but in the movie’s parallel live-action storyline, the boy from the first movie is now approaching teen-hood—and his shifting interests are an engine of the sequel’s plot.
These creative decisions aren’t unprecedented in animation, and in fact seem to be at least partially inspired by Toy Story 3, and how much pathos it wrung not just from the group of (semi-ageless) toys confronting their mortality, but how in the margins of the story, we could see Andy, the little boy from the first two films, grown into a teenager heading for college. Like its predecessor, Toy Story 3 roots its conflict in anxieties over what will happen to the toys when their owner loses interest or grows up, and if it retreads a little ground from Toy Story 2, that’s understandable given the difference between thinking of Andy maybe growing up in the future and seeing Andy actually grown up and moving out of his idyllic suburban home.
20 years ago, as Toy Story 2 was preparing for release, animated sequels were almost unheard of, at least as theatrical releases. Disney started putting out direct-to-video sequels and prequels to its new and classic films in the mid-90s, and occasionally a Don Bluth production like An American Tail or All Dogs Go to Heaven would receive an ill-regarded, poorly attended follow-up for a brief theatrical run. But splashy franchising of cartoons wasn’t a common practice. Now that it is, these movies are understandably eager to advertise themselves as warmer and more meaningful (and, as such, more family-friendly) than a cash-flow spigot. They don’t just want that Toy Story money; they want those Toy Story feelings, too.
It’s not fair to compare The Hidden World or Lego 2 to the typical Pixar movie, much less Pixar’s flagship series (a new and presumably Andy-free installment of which, Toy Story 4, drops this summer). But both of the new movies are clearly chasing some level of poignancy, and never quite catch it. Just as some big-studio cartoons create the illusion of parent-friendly sophistication by shouting out some double entendres or pop culture references, these two movies feign wisdom about growing up. They seem to expect that if they depict it on screen, adult viewers will feel a catch in their chest not unlike the one that startles Andy’s mom towards the end of Toy Story 3, when she looks around her son’s now-empty childhood room.
If anything, the third Dragon picture leans too heavily on its willingness to visibly age Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), its young hero. Hiccup doesn’t sound especially different, or act especially different, or offer a radically different point of view than he did in the first movie, when he defied tribe orthodoxy to befriend and, yes, train a dragon, which his people had been trained to hunt and destroy, not love. Toothless, Hiccup’s loyal dragon, is still around, and plenty of other dragons have been integrated into his society; all of his friends (including a love interest voiced by America Ferrara and a variety of comic-relief sidekicks voiced by Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and a TJ Miller impersonator) have their own, and the creatures are threatening to overpopulate their little settlement.
The dragons also attract bloodthirsty bad guys, still ready to rid the world of these magnificently designed creatures, which puts Hiccup on a quest to find the secret dragon homeworld, hoping to make it his tribe’s new home base. A simple quest story sounds like a fine idea for this series, one of the more credibly fantastic in the DreamWorks stable, but the plot turns out to be oddly listless, heavy on sky-commuting. The Vikings abandon their village of Berk after an attack, look for the Hidden World, make a pit-stop somewhere else, chill out there as Hiccup heads to find the Hidden World himself, as other characters go back to Berk, and then back to the pit-stop, and back and forth and on and on. When the movie does explore the hidden dragon world, it’s eye-filling and gorgeous. So why isn’t the movie actually set there?
This isn’t supposed to matter that much, because the real meat of the story is supposed to come from the maybe-parting of Hiccup and Toothless. Sweet-natured as these movies are, the emotional component doesn’t really pay off here, not least because Hiccup isn’t all that interesting. Toy Story’s Andy is a bit of a cipher, too, but he’s just an audience stand-in with a few minutes of screentime; Hiccup is all over The Hidden World, and the sequels never deepen his character. He’s a kid in an adult body: a little gangly, loves his pet, feels some awkward affection for his girlfriend but gets embarrassed about expressing it. Maybe it’s because the company he keeps is even more arrested. The Dragon movies are pitched as the more sophisticated DreamWorks cartoons, but they still step on their beauty (usually supplied by wordless sequences involving Toothless) with a lot of loud comic relief, giving Hiccup’s friends tedious subplots full of pseudo-wisecracks. They may not scream out pop-culture references, but this doesn’t stop them from unfunny yammering. Years may pass for these characters, but they aren’t growing up alongside their audience.
The Lego Movie 2 is far more successful as a sequel; it very much recaptures the dizzying energy and brightly-colored invention of its predecessor, at least for a while, and it has clear ambitions to say something about the nature of play, just as the wonderful first film did. At first, it looks as if screenwriters and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller are using the twist of the first film—that the Lego world is really a hyperactive visualization of a father-son conflict over the “right” way to play with these toys—to explore new avenues. The first movie ends with the dad (Will Ferrell) telling his son that his little sister will get to play with the Legos, too, and the new movie picks up with that little-kid “invasion” (courtesy of Duplo blocks, the perfect final joke in the earlier film).
With the audience well aware of the movie’s live-action component, it’s clearer than ever that Lego Movie 2 has its eyes on real-world resonance. It touches upon changing the tastes of a boy as he moves through tweenhood (suddenly more interested in “dark, cool” post-apocalyptic landscapes than delightful, poppy mash-ups); the gendering of toys that ascribes seriousness and awesomeness to “boy” toys and frivolity to girls; tensions between siblings in different stages of development; and how to deal with the fact that, contrary to the first movie’s semi-ironic theme song, not everything is actually always awesome.
Synthesizing all of that into a satisfying, coherent whole might require a real magic trick, but unfortunately the first film more or less pulls one off, which leaves Lego 2 in the lurch when it decides to simplify its themes down to positive-thinking messaging. Instead of really tackling the way our tastes and relationships may change as we grow up, Lord and Miller wind up kinda-sorta lecturing about how just because something is darker doesn’t make it better. True enough, but isn’t the same true for unchecked poptimism? Lego 2 does frame the boy’s rejection of his sister’s play as lacking empathy and as a product of gender norms. But in the process, it also gives any genuine adolescent feelings the short shrift. Be nicer to your sister, kid! And the kid should, absolutely; as a parent, how could I not feel at least a little warmth toward the movie’s vision of two children separated by at least four or five years, but united to play Legos together?
I just wish the movie didn’t also position changing tastes as a form of posturing. Emmet, the eager-to-please minifig hero, finds out that the “cool” older-brother figure he meets is really just a time-travel version of himself, hardened by life and determined to make it on his own as a badass solo hero, no matter the cost to his friends. Lucy, the “strong female character” badass who thinks Emmet might not be tough enough, realizes that she’s wrong to be suspicious of the cuter, sparklier “girl” toys—a fine revelation that the movie gooses by revealing that Lucy herself used to have bright blue hair instead of jet-black, and also was a member of the generic pop group that put out “Everything Is Awesome,” a song she purports to dislike. Rather than letting kids know that there’s nothing wrong with liking a silly pop song, the movie goes further and implies that if you don’t like a silly pop song, you’re probably lying to yourself on some level.
I don’t think Lord and Miller are trying to impose poptimism-derived martial law on their young audience. I think they’re trying to make sure kids know it’s OK to be kids, and better to play with your siblings than resist them, and that everything can’t be awesome all the time, as its sequel theme says. But younger kids probably don’t need to rediscover their inner child, older kids probably don’t need to be told that they’re jerks because they’ve become more interested in Mad Max or The Matrix, and the new song urges its audience to try to make things awesome, even if they can’t be. The movie sounds more nuanced than it really is, basically ending with cheerleading positivity in the guise of understanding. There’s a messiness to the inner life of tweens and young teenagers that Lego Movie 2 keeps either in check, or in straight up denial. (And not to play the Pixar again, but think about Inside Out and that film’s accepting treatment of sadness by way of contrast.)
Lego 2 and Dragon 3 are ultimately for kids, of course, and a lot of kids will probably like them. They’re not bad movies, especially Lego. It’s just a strange spectacle, witnessing these family films laboring to reach beyond kid stuff with a seeming reluctance to cause their audience anything more than momentary discomfort. Rather than bridging the gaps between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, these movies amount to all-ages coddling.