Film Review – How to Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) succeeds by fulfilling the potential established by the first film, without succumbing to the trappings of being a sequel. Yes, it is a bigger story, with a grander scope and darker themes, but writer/director Dean DeBlois maintains the spirit from How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and applies it here. At its heart, the franchise has relied on smaller, more intimate ideas: family, friendship, and understanding. The emotions and relationships between the characters is what makes this work, and DeBlois and his team at DreamWorks Animation understand that. This has unmistakably become the central property of the studio’s lot. I had my misgivings about a sequel to one of the best animated films to come out in recent memory, but it’s now safe to say: it does not disappoint.
One of the standout elements is how beautiful the animation is rendered. Large steps have been made since the original was released, and now we have an expanding world that continues to look and feel inventive. Five years have passed since the events of the first film, where we find both Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless now entering adulthood. While other members of their village take enjoyment racing their dragons, Hiccup and Toothless spend their time exploring uncharted lands. This allows the filmmakers to create new set pieces, often in beautiful wintry locales. Once again, they make great use of lighting – not just in its application, but also in its absence. Shadows are prominent (notice how dark the images often get), but it provides wonderful textures to both the environments and the characters.
Hiccup is at a crossroads in his life, caught between his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) expecting him to become the chief of their Viking home, and Hiccup’s desire for adventure. Besides Hiccup’s connection with Toothless, his dynamic with Stoick has continued to be fascinating and heartfelt. It’s one of the anchors that made the first entry so impacting. That is no different here, as Stoick has to face the reality of his son becoming his own man.
The theme of “family” is built further as Hiccup stumbles across a mysterious Dragon Rider named Valka (Cate Blanchett). Valka has the same ability to connect with dragons as Hiccup does, but in an advanced way. Her home is a safe haven for lost dragons, including an enormous Alpha that can control them all with its mind. I won’t describe what her exact “relationship” is with Hiccup (the trailer easily gives that away), but I will note her scenes with Stoick turn out to be the most emotionally resonant. This may be one of Gerard Butler’s finest performances (animation or live action). His voice acting is pitch perfect, shaping his role with the sentiment necessary after reuniting with this long lost person.
In a fantasy/action adventure, it’s required to have a bad guy, and the screenplay provides one in Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is a mean dragon hunter, who uses fear and intimidation to conquer his enemies. Having an army of slave dragons definately helps too. The writing does provide some reason behind Drago’s evil ways, but not enough to make him a multi-dimensional character. He’s pretty much there to serve as a counterpoint to our heroes. The plot is split into two arcs. One involves Hiccup, Toothless, Stoick and his comrade Gobber (Craig Ferguson) meeting Valka. The other features Hiccup’s friends Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) trying to stop Drago from attacking their village. Watch for Kristen Wiig, as her portrayal of Ruffnut makes for the biggest laughs.
It’s no surprise all roads will lead to a massive battle. The admirable facet – when it comes to the action – is how DeBlois and his team remained steadfast enough to inject real peril into the material. There is actual danger facing our protagonists (human and dragon), and the writing doesn’t shy away from permanently changing them, both physically and mentally. Not enough family-oriented films do this, where true consequences can take place – instead opting for the status quo. These are characters that have grown and are noticeably changing as the story unfolds, and their experiences leave a lasting impression, enriching whom they are turning out to be.
The biggest problem with How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the simple fact it is not the first film. The sense of wonder and discovery are not as significant. Flying scenes are amazing to watch as usual, but not as breathtaking as the first time we saw Hiccup ride Toothless. The story may be a bit plot heavy, characters may speak in expositional phrases too often, and Kit Harington plays a character with little to no importance. But beyond those minor nitpicks, this is still a fantastic animated movie for any one of any age. It moves at a brisk pace, while maintaining a high level of enjoyment all the way through. I was anxious over where this story would lead, but now I’m excited to see what places it’ll go next.