There was a time when animated sequels were so bad, nobody even bothered to put them into theaters. I'm talking about dreck like the Aladdin sequel “The Return of Jafar,” “Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea” and “Cinderella II: Dreams Come True.”
No, I’m not making that up; they actually made a “Cinderella II,” followed by “Cinderella III: A Twist in Time.” I kept waiting for “Sleeping Beauty Returns for Some Very Long Naps” or “Snow White II: Snow Whiter,” but these were not to be.
Each of these sequels featured a weak retread of the original story with shoddier TV-style animation, forgettable songs, and a direct-to-video sales model that had them cluttering up the bargain bins just weeks after they were released. They were little more than cynical cash grabs exploiting the affection of audiences for the far-superior originals. As such, these substandard products demean their source material simply by existing.
I had this history in mind as the lights dimmed in the theater where I was watching “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the follow-up to the delightful 2010 hit that I quite enjoyed. I had heard good things about this sequel, but I had my reservations. How could they possibly continue the self-contained story that wrapped up so perfectly in the first movie? Didn’t they already train all the dragons last time?
My first clue that this wasn’t just going to be the same stuff in a new package was the fact that the young hero Hiccup had aged five years since “How to Train Your Dragon.” If this had been a live-action film, that wouldn’t have been particularly earth-shattering, because real people have no choice but to age. Cartoon people have the option, but they generally don’t exercise it. I remember suffering through “Little Mermaid II” and wondering why Ariel was portrayed as essentially being the same age as her teenage daughter. The Simpsons have been in television and movies for well over two decades, and Bart, Lisa and Maggie are no closer to puberty than they were when the show began.
But both the writers and the animators made a point of aging Hiccup and his contemporaries from teenagers into young adults. This was the same character, yes, but at a different maturity level. As a result, the filmmakers had no choice but to move forward, which is exactly what they did.
Rather than convince his village that the dragons are their friends, Hiccup finds himself tasked with defending his village from a dragon master with the potential to destroy everyone and everything he loves. It’s thematically consistent with what went before, but this time, the stakes have been raised. In addition, the audience is more invested in these characters, which means that their triumphs and sacrifices matter more to us than they did the first time around. This is why “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is as good as “Cinderella II: Dreams Come True” is wretched.
It always comes as a surprise when a sequel is at least as good as the original, but I don’t really understand why. The principles of good storytelling aren’t some great secret, but most sequels can’t be bothered to pay any attention to them.
I understand that there will always be audiences willing to pay for a second movie that’s a pale copy of the first, but it’s just as much work to make a good movie as it is to make a bad one. So why not make some effort to move forward? Why not raise the stakes and tell a tale that people will remember? That’s not just good storytelling; it’s good business. “How to Train Your Dragon 3” is going to make a whole lot more money than “Cinderella IV: The Revenge of Gus Gus.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving them any ideas.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.