How To Train Your Dragon was one of those films that I wasn’t sure would be anything but ordinary based on the trailers. Up to that point, movies from DreamWorks Animation had been a hit or miss affair — I really liked Shrek, Over the Hedge and Monsters Vs Aliens; Shark Tale, Bee Movie and Flushed Away, not so much — and there wasn’t anything in the trailer that made me believe this would be anything but another average film. But not only did it end up being a breakout hit, it became one of my top ten films of 2010; a sequel was inevitable. For whatever reason, though (perhaps because of the myriad of straight-to-video iterations), I wasn’t sold on the idea that the creators had enough juice left to tell a story that could live up to its predecessor and be worthy of big screen treatment. I’m happy to report that, with How To Train Your Dragon 2, I was once again pleasantly surprised by the overall magic of this franchise.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) returns as the titular hero alongside his trusted dragon companion, Toothless. He’s a little older, a little wiser (perhaps a little more arrogant), but still has that innately defiant spirit that made him so endearing and likeable in the first film. His love of adventure and exploration has pushed him to create a variety of new inventions, such as his own pair of wings that he can use to soar through the skies alongside his best friend. There is a hitch in the landing, but that most certainly can be fixed over time and with a little bit of practice.
Part of what makes this franchise so good is the relationships between the various characters. One of the major relationships in the first film is between Hiccup and his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who was continuously disappointed in Hiccup because he could never see beyond the lack of viking prowess to the heart of who Hiccup was. Now that Stoick understands his sons true nature, he knows that he will be the best person to take over as leader of his people on the island of Berk.
But Hiccup sees things differently. To become the ruler of Berk means that he must give up his freedoms, and he wants no part of that. So he continues to try and avoid his father by continuously flying out to discover and chart new lands (sometimes with his attractively sweet and funny girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera)). This defiance leads him to discovering a feud between an unknown dragon rider (aka dragon protector) and a fleet of dragon wranglers working for dark and sinister Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who wants to collect and take control over all dragons for his own nefarious purposes.
Hiccup’s arrogance in having united men and dragon in peace makes him believe that he can change the mind of Drago and his band of misfits (including Eret (Kit Harrington), who gets caught up in an irrelevant but fun subplot in which Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) falls madly in love… with his bulging biceps) for the betterment of peace. His early attempts fail, which lead him to discovering the true identity of the mysterious dragon rider, a person he once thought long dead — his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett).
The heart of the story in the original film was in how enemies could work together to bring peace if you could only look past the noise to find the truth underneath even the most menacing of creatures, including your own family. The sequel doesn’t stray too far from that design, retaining a familiar message about the love of family and how true friendship can overcome any obstacle. But it digs so much deeper into these ideas than the original, handling some much darker issues with grace and integrity, which all combined give the film that much more weight.
In meeting Valka, Hiccup learns that the apple doesn’t far from the tree, as she is just as sympathetic to rescuing and protecting dragons as he is. Not only that, but she knows even more about dragons than Hiccup ever thought possible, even revealing a neat little row of scales in Toothless that the excited little dragon didn’t even know he had. I would have liked to have seen a little more confusion and pain coming from both of these characters upon their first meeting, but overall, there relationship fits well into the overall arch of the series and gives Hiccup someone he can bond with on a much deeper level than he ever could before.
One aspect about the film that separates it from most of its competition is that the filmmakers have chosen to age all of their characters in an appropriate fashion. The new character designs are fantastic in how accurate they are in aging them as if they were real actors coming back to play these characters again after five years. You can see the maturity in Hiccup immediately in the sharper jawline and deeper set eyes, and at the same time, those who remained immature, such as Snoutlet (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), have clearly aged (what with their stubble of whiskers), but remain visually immature.
There are also some exquisitely produced sequences that add a lot of texture to the meaning and themes of the film. One moment in particular is when two opposing alpha dragons butt heads in the background while two alpha males fight each other in the foreground. Even though the shot only lasts for a few seconds, it stands out for its incredibly rich tapestry of depth and foreshadowing, leading into a devastating moment that gives the film the resonance it has been aiming for the entire time.
But nothing in the film beats the climactic battle between good and evil, one that packs in as much comedy, drama and action that it can possibly hold, while continuing to deliver on the pride of its message where both of our heroes find the courage and the strength they had once been lacking to give us something new and fresh that we never saw coming.
Even though I may have had my misgivings about both films, I just love when a movie produces so much more than I was anticipating, and just like the original, How To Train Your Dragon 2 sparked my expectations into a fireball of excitement and wonder.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Jersey Boys and Think Like A Man Too. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.