Ten Years Later, How to Train Your Dragon 2 Was a Turning Point for DreamWorks Animation

Twentieth Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation Los Angeles Premiere of 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'
Twentieth Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation Los Angeles Premiere of 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' / Eric Charbonneau/GettyImages

Today’s undisputed classic movies often started out life as much more complicated cinematic figures. Masterpieces like Fantasia or The Wizard of Oz were initially box office underperformers. They were known for losing money, not artistic accomplishments. Though not at the level of those early 20th-century trailblazers, a similar phenomenon affected How to Train Your Dragon 2. Today, the feature is one part of a sprawling Dragon franchise. The movies themselves have a fanbase spanning all ages. Dragon 2 clearly made enough money to spawn the third and final animated entry in the saga. This particular sequel also scored widespread critical acclaim and tons of award-season attention.

However, when it hit theaters ten years ago, How to Train Your Dragon 2 had a much different initial response from audiences, box office analysts, and even DreamWorks Animation executives. It was no flop. However, it also inspired drastic creative “course-correction” from DreamWorks in the years to come. In retrospect, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a pivotal turning point for DreamWorks…and not in the ways you might expect.

In talking about his ambitions for this sequel, writer/director Dean DeBlois has constantly compared How to Train Your Dragon 2 to The Empire Strikes Back. Both films blew up the scope of worlds audiences thought they knew and plunged familiar characters into darker narratives. For Dragon 2, that meant engaging in bold storytelling choices like killing off the father of protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). This follow-up also briefly had the loveable dragon Toothless turn evil in the hands of the movie’s main villain. This revered cuddly critter even got physically roughed up on-screen by that same foe.

The greatest of these ambitious tonal swings gave How to Train Your Dragon 2 a very distinctive identity compared to its predecessor. This animated sequel believed youngsters deserved coherent and thoughtful cinema rather than a flurry of noise and merchandising opportunities. However, that very quality likely alienated some younger audiences and their parents. It’s natural for sequels to big live-action blockbusters to go darker than their predecessor. That same element isn’t a guarantee for animated kid’s movie sequels. Ice Age: The Meltdown, Despicable Me 2, Rio 2, and countless other follow-ups delivered wackier gags, not more complicated tones.

Going in this unexpected direction for family-friendly animated fare undoubtedly impacted Dragon 2’s box office potential. Opening in the summer of 2014, Dragon 2 was the biggest family movie game in town for the season, especially since Pixar had no new animated feature that summer. That lack of competition sent expectations for its opening weekend skyrocketing. Because of its opening weekend coming a bit lower than expected, the stock numbers for DreamWorks Animation plummeted in mid-June. This studio’s stock was always vulnerable to the opening weekend numbers of every single DreamWorks title. The early 2010s were already an incredibly tumultuous time for DreamWorks Animation. More bad news from a seemingly surefire sequel didn’t help the studio.

In the wake of Dragon 2’s great reviews and $600+ million worldwide gross, DreamWorks shifted its future output towards zippier aesthetics. Subsequent titles like Home, Trolls, and The Boss Baby were aimed at significantly younger audiences and carried much lighter tones. Other DreamWorks projects potentially echoing Dragon 2’s storyline also hit the trash-heap. In 2022, media analyst Ben Fritz observed that DreamWorks felt Dragon 2 could’ve been bigger if Stoick hadn’t died. The studio grew wary of any further animated movies involving fathers dying. This included the planned 2015 film B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations.

That Seth Rogen/Melissa McCarthy ghost movie was just months away from release when it was pulled off the schedule and shelved permanently. Reportedly, many factors led to that production's demise. However, its central story involving a father dying didn't help its chances of surviving to theaters. As DreamWorks further tightened its belt during the 2010s, potential original films echoing the epic fantasy scale of Dragon 2 like Monkeys of Mumbai also never saw the light of day.

How to Train Your Dragon 2’s adverse impact on DreamWorks Animation even extended to the studio no longer putting all its eggs in the Dragon basket for its future. Back in 2010, the original How to Train Your Dragon succeeded when the studio's moneymaker Shrek saga wrapped up. It was time for a new franchise to take center-stage as the pride and joy of DreamWorks Animation. Dragon was a prime candidate for that treatment. As early as 2010, official comments from DeBlois and other artists made it clear that there were only supposed to be three Dragon movies. However, DreamWorks Animation then-head Jeffrey Katzenberg teased in May 2014 that the franchise could span four movies. This studio head needed reliable hits for his studio. Dragon could provide such successes.

After Dragon 2, though, DreamWorks Animation didn’t greenlight endless further Dragon movies. A third installment continued to brew, but the studio instead severely cut back its annual output of motion pictures. More energy than ever went into finding the label a permanent home. These results ended with Universal Pictures purchasing DreamWorks Animation in 2016. In hindsight, How to Train Your Dragon 2 not becoming the next Despicable Me 2-sized hit was a major wake-up call for DreamWorks Animation. There was no miracle on the horizon saving the studio. The independent entity model could no longer work long-term.

All those strange and sad events are extra puzzling given Dragon 2’s positive creative legacy. Save for thoughtful pieces exploring the film’s approach to women characters, Dragon 2 has largely garnered a very upbeat following in the ten years since its release. It even occupies an intriguing section in the larger Dragon mythos spanning multiple movies and TV shows. How to Train Your Dragon 2 was undeniably a turning point for DreamWorks Animation, often in negative ways. However, that’s emblematic of media conglomerates never feeling any level of box office success is “enough.” The kind of quality storytelling that drives the Dragon trilogy lasts far beyond such reductive corporate shenanigans.   

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