Movie Reviews
1:18 pm
Fri June 13, 2014

It's A Summer Sequel Spectacular With 'Dragon' And 'Jump Street'

Originally published on Fri June 13, 2014 5:23 pm

In a summer of sequels — 16 in all — this weekend is the sequelliest, offering blockbuster deja-vu (How To Train Your Dragon 2 AND 22 Jump Street) as well as a few object lessons in how to train your audience. One film goes all meta with its concept, the other goes back to basics, and for a change, both approaches work.

Meta's the mantra for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who're managing three franchises these days — Lego, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Jump Street — and who're going to have to get off the sequel train pretty soon. For the moment, though, they're riding it in style.

21 Jump Street was already a been-there-done-that TV cop show parody, a fact they reference by beginning the new film with a "Previously on Jump Street ..." recap, followed by a meeting with Nick Offerman's Deputy Police Chief, who directly addresses the original low-budget stakes as the movie studio saw them:

"Nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot," he tells stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, "but you got lucky, so now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going."

A lot of money that you can see on screen in a first-reel FX-enhanced chase sequence atop an 18-wheeler that has cars bursting into flame with production values justified by the first film's $200 million grosses.

All to establish that officers Schmidt and Jenko aren't very good at action heroics, giving their captain (Ice Cube) an excuse to send them back undercover as verrrry over-age students. "Same identities, same assignment," he tells them, except this time in college, not high school.

In the first movie, the joke was that beefy Tatum and nerdy Hill had to work together because high school had changed so much since they'd attended that they no longer knew how to negotiate it on their own. Tatum's macho jock-ness didn't play well with today's socially-aware kids; Hill's dweeb had no idea how to be in with the in-crowd. This film reverses that dynamic — Tatum makes the college football team, Hill's back in nerd hell (though with unaccountable luck with the ladies), which isn't as naturally funny, so the screenplay makes bro-mance jokes instead, detailing a dysfuntional partnership that a college shrink, perhaps understandably, misjudges as a couples-counseling problem.

Filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who are themselves impressive partners at this point) know enough not to mess with a successful formula. They keep the self-referential stuff coming, from opening to closing credits (with the latter taking sequelitis to its logical conclusion), with cameos, movies jokes (an Annie Hall riff has a nice payoff), and even by pairing a cop-dissing young Ice Cube on the soundtrack, with the middle-aged cop-supervising Ice Cube on screen.

"It's the same case," he keeps telling them. "Do the same thing."

A sequel rule to live by.

The alternative, though, is to advance the story in an organic way, and the How to Train Your Dragon folks take that route for their Part Two, picking up five years after we last saw Hiccup, who was then a teen Viking-Chief-in-training, and who's now an angular, considerably more sure-of-himself 20-year-old.

Hiccup (voiced by a still squeaky Jay Baruchel) lost a leg in the first movie but he's adapted, as has his rambunctious half-panther/half-lizard dragon pal Toothless, who has that prosthetic tailfin. No big deal is made of this — a fact that will likely thrill parents of physically challenged kids — because what's happening this time is that our heroes are figuring out the world around them.

In the first film, Hiccup had what was essentially a child's task: overcoming his own (and then his tribe's) fear of monsters. With the fire-breathing beasties now tamed, both hero and filmmakers can move on to more mature pursuits — figuring out how to deal with an aggressor who can't be reasoned with, for instance, and appreciating the balance to be found in an environment that's admittedly fanciful, but is gorgeously substantial as realized on screen.

Hiccup will discover that with power comes responsibility, and that the ones you love can make terrible, even deadly, mistakes. Heady stuff for a kid-flick, though there are certainly precedents. Director Dean DeBlois has been saying this installment is the middle movie in a How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. It's clear that he took inspiration from the first Star Wars trilogy — not a bad model for breathing new life, and yes, a bit of fire, into one of Hollywood's more nuanced animated franchises.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is a summer of sequels. There will be 16 in movie theaters, this season. This weekend is the sequel-iest. Both, "How To Train Your Dragon 2" and "22 Jumps Street," are out. Critic Bob Mondello says, they offer us Blockbuster Deja Vu and also a lesson in how to train your audience.

BOB MONDELLO: "21 Jump Street" was already a parody of a TV cop show, making fun of having been there and done that. So at the beginning of "22 Jump Street," there's a previously on Jump Street recap, followed by a meeting with the chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

NICK OFFERMAN: (As Deputy Chief Hardy) Well, I hoped never to see you again.

JONAH HILL: (As Schmidt) Sup, dog.

CHANNING TATUM: (As Jenko) We're back.

MONDELLO: In which, he pretty directly addresses the original, low-budget stakes, as the movie studio saw them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

OFFERMAN: (As Deputy Chief Hardy) Nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot. But you got lucky.

MONDELLO: And then explains where that leaves us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

OFFERMAN: (As Deputy Chief Hardy) So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure that Jump Street keeps going.

MONDELLO: A lot of money that you can see on screen in a chase scene on top an 18-wheeler, cars burst into flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

TATUM: (As Jenko) Dude, that was a car.

MONDELLO: All of it establishes that officers Schmidt and Jenko aren't very good at action heroics. So their captain sends them back undercover, as very overage students.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

ICE CUBE: (As Captain Dickinson) Same identities, same assignment.

TATUM: (As Jenko) We're going back to high school?

ICE CUBE: (As Captain Dickinson) You look like you're about 50. You're going to MC State.

MONDELLO: In the first movie, the joke was that beefy Channing Tatum and nerdy Jonah Hill had to work together, because high school had changed so much. This time, the jokes are more about how they work together in a dysfunctional partnership, that a college shrink, perhaps understandably, misjudges, somewhat, when they tried to explain to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

HILL: (As Schmidt) Doc, I just feel like, sometimes, he's not even trying, anymore.

TATUM: (As Jenko) Seriously, he's clingy. He's terrified of being by himself.

MARC EVAN JACKSON: (As Dr. Murphy) Given all these strong feelings, why don't you hold hands? He's literally reaching out for you.

HILL: (As Schmidt) Come on, hold my hand.

TATUM: (As Jenko) (Sighing) You...

HILL: (As Schmidt) You've got to interlock it, though. If you don't interlock it, we might as well just be friends and not partners.

MONDELLO: Filmmakers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are, themselves, an impressive partnership, having made "The Lego Movie" and the "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs" pictures, know enough not to mess with a successful formula. They keep the self-referential stuff going, right through the closing credits, including young Ice Cube on the soundtrack and middle-aged Ice Cube on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "22 JUMP STREET")

ICE CUBE: (As Captain Dickinson) It's the same case. Do the same thing.

MONDELLO: Sequel rules to live by. The other way to do a sequel, though, is to advance the story. And the "How To Train Your Dragon" folks take that route.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2")

JAY BARUCHEL: (As Hiccup) When do you think, bud? Do you want to give this another shot?

(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING)

MONDELLO: Part two picks up five years after we last saw Hiccup, then 18, Viking chief in training, who's now an angular, considerably more sure of himself 20-year-old. He lost a leg in the first movie. But he's adapted, as has his dragon steed, Toothless, who has a prostatic tail fin. No big deal is made of their physical challenges, this time. What's happening here is that their learning more about the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Valka) Something is coming. Something you've never faced before.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Protect our people. It's your destiny.

MONDELLO: In the first film, Hiccup had what was essentially a child's task, overcoming his own and then his tribes' fear of monsters. With those fire-breathing beasties now tamed, both our hero and the filmmakers can move on to more mature pursuits, figuring out how to deal with an aggressor who can't be reasoned with, for instance, and appreciating the balance to be found in an environment that's admittedly fanciful but gorgeously realized, on screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2")

BARUCHEL: (As Hiccup) Dragons, wow.

MONDELLO: Hiccup will discover that with power, comes responsibility. And that the ones you love can make terrible, even deadly, mistakes, heavy stuff for a kid flick. But there are precedents. Director Dean DeBlois has been saying this installment is the middle movie in a "How To Train Your Dragon" trilogy. And it's clear that he took inspiration from the first "Star Wars" trilogy, which is not a bad model for breathing new life, and, yes, a bit of fire, into one of Hollywood's more nuanced, animated franchises. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.