Most summer weekends have one blockbuster sequel poised to continue a profitable franchise. But the weekend of June 13 is very unique, in that it has two blockbuster sequels duking it out. For those tired of bigger but not necessarily better summer sequels, this wouldn’t normally be promising.
Yet How To Train Your Dragon and 21 Jump Street already pulled surprises once in their original hits. As such, the likelihood of these two new franchises surprising everyone again, and on the same weekend this time, stands to make this one of the most unique summer showdowns in recent memory.
Both How To Train Your Dragon and 21 Jump Street are outliers in their respective genres. For Dragon, it is the rare Dreamworks Animation hit that isn’t reliant on hip parodies, big celebrity voices or hyperactive storytelling. For 21 Jump Street, it is the very rare adaptation of an old television show that managed to be any good, and one of the even rarer recent instances of a movie parody that hit its target.
Dreamworks has been defined by a snarky, star studded, pop culture friendly formula that Shrek pioneered back in 2001. Instead of growing out of it, Dreamworks kept at it even when the formula yielded fewer returns, as the rest of the Shrek franchise proved. The exceptions to the rule have been the Kung Fu Panda series and the first How To Train Your Dragon – and Rise of the Guardians to that film’s defenders. But those exceptions have been made so differently by comparison, it’s a wonder they came from the same studio.
It wasn’t surprising that How To Train Your Dragon made money, but it was a surprise that critical acclaim went with it – a combination Dreamworks Animation only really mastered with the first two Shrek’s and Kung Fu Panda’s. Yet it was one thing to do it in spring 2010, and quite another to be bigger and better in summer 2014 – especially with the prospect of opening against an even more unlikely sequel.
When 21 Jump Street came out in spring 2012, virtually no one saw it as a good idea. Adapting Johnny Depp’s old 1980s cop show as a R-rated comedy, with the unusual pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum at that, seemed like another sign that “the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle s*it from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
However, writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller went ahead and admitted that themselves before critics could. By picking apart the rest of the high school movie/cop drama formula while they were at it, and turning Hill and Tatum into the Gibson and Glover of the buddy cop spoof genre, 21 Jump Street snuck up on everyone.
Nevertheless, it was one thing to defy expectations once in spring 2012. It is quite another to try and do it in summer 2014, against How To Train Your Dragon 2 and against the ghosts of countless failed comedy sequels. Those who are still trying to forget Ghostbusters 2, Analyze That, Meet the Fockers, The Hangover sequels and Anchorman 2 can unfortunately attest to that.
Since sequels are an incredibly mixed bag, especially in summer, the odds were that either How To Train Your Dragon 2, 22 Jump Street or both would crash and taint the legacies of their original surprise hits, even if they still made big bucks.
But both How To Train Your Dragon and 21 Jump Street bucked the trend of their formulas and supposed limitations. As such, maybe it isn’t so remarkable that their sequels are poised to do the same, according to almost all the early critics who’ve seen them.
With rave reviews from the Cannes Film Festival, How To Train Your Dragon 2 may be the rare animated sequel that tops the original in both box office and critical praise. And with raves from its own early screenings, 22 Jump Street may join the very short list of comedy sequels that don’t tarnish their original – mainly by apparently mocking the idea of sequels to begin with, in the now trademark Lord/Miller style they also mastered in The Lego Movie.
By being less pop culture centric, more emotional and just as visually stunning, How To Train Your Dragon set itself apart from much of the Dreamworks filmography – and word is the sequel doubles down on those same strengths. Likewise, 21 Jump Street set itself apart with more creativity and meta commentary than the average film of its kind, and word is that 22 Jump Street builds on those exact same unique strengths as well.
It is one thing for an average summer season to have one sequel like that, let alone two. It is quite another to have two sequels like that open on the exact same weekend. Yet given how unique the How To Train Your Dragon and 21 Jump Street franchises are – at least compared to the predecessors in their genres – it is almost fitting that they are being paired against each other.
With box office competition that includes the equally surprising critical hit Edge of Tomorrow, the teen tearjerker The Fault in our Stars, the family hit Maleficent and the even more durable X-Men: Days of Future Past, it may be harder for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and 22 Jump Street to take the box office by storm. Opening in a crowded and better than usual summer does make the hunt for big bucks trickier than in a light spring.
Yet most budding franchises would take the easy way out, both commercially and creativity, just to rake up the cash. But How To Train Your Dragon and 21 Jump Street didn’t make it big in the first place by merely following their genre’s formula – at least not without a few tweaks along the way.
By handling things with more care and heart and less distractions than their predecessors, the How To Train Your Dragon series may well supplant Shrek as the new gold standard of Dreamworks Animation. Likewise, by not doing the same old lazy, paint-by-numbers treatment of old TV shows, cop and buddy movies, the 21 Jump Street franchise may be a true anomaly in big screen comedy today.
If their sequels have indeed followed the same spirit, as their early critical fans have suggested, then their duel openings make for a landmark weekend regardless of the box office standings.