The first How To Train Your Dragon was an incredible surprise for two reasons: it was a DreamWorks Animation film that was actually good after a long stretch of questionable films (save Kung Fu Panda), and it out-Avatared James Cameron’s Avatar with its depiction of immersive and jaw-dropping 3D flight sequences. The story and voice work were stellar, and the film’s visual flair produced some of the most impressive action sequences that graced a movie screen that year. It’s been four years since the first film was released, and now writer/director Dean DeBlois (co-writer and co-director of the original) is back to continue the story with How To Train Your Dragon 2.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet dragon Toothless taught the residents of the village of Berk to coexist with dragons at the end of the first film, and this movie opens five years later, with the town having fully embraced the flying firebreathers as companions. Hiccup, his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and their group of friends have grown into young adults, and Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants his son to become the next chief of the village. Hiccup doesn’t quite know how to respond to that, since he’s much more comfortable exploring the surrounding regions with Toothless than doing…you know, chief stuff.
Hiccup and Astrid discover a band of dragon hunters on an island nearby who are trying to trap dragons and bring them to their power-mad master, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), and a new conflict is born: Hiccup must convince his father not to immediately go to war with Drago. Along the way Hiccup meets his mother (Cate Blanchett), who was thought to be dead but actually spent the past twenty years protecting the dragons of the realm. She teaches Hiccup and Toothless a few new tricks, and there’s a nice family reunion story that feels a little too good to be true – and sure enough, it is. I won’t spoil what happens, but the movie hits its major emotional beat perfectly, so much so that I actually teared up. That’s the power of good storytelling.
The flight sequences are still breathtaking and many of them seem to look even better than the first film, but the sense of awe and wonder at the joy of soaring through the clouds is lessened a bit because we’ve already seen it done in this universe. Watching Hiccup and his friends zip around in climatic battle sequence is cool, but it doesn’t carry the same exhilaration as it did in their first adventure together. I’d also argue that there are too many dragons this time around. Hiccup’s mother introduces him to dozens of new species, and many of the movie’s biggest moments involve the sky being so filled with dragons you can barely make out the horizon line. Again, it’s dazzling to behold, but there’s something to be said about the smaller scale of the first movie, when it was just Hiccup and Toothless flying through the sky and learning how to be friends. The story here is more oriented around Hiccup’s family, but it loses a bit of the first film’s personal touch as a tradeoff. How To Train Your Dragon 2 goes bigger in practically every aspect, but it’s not always better because of it.
Since the characters are older this time around, the sequel focuses on themes that are decidedly more adult. Craig Ferguson’s Gobber comes out as gay, but his nonchalant outing is offhandedly mentioned after a big punchline and didn’t register at all in my screening (which was packed with kids). Kristen Wiig’s Ruffnut becomes infatuated with a new character named Eret (played by Kit Harington from “Game of Thrones”), and she openly ogles him multiple times throughout the movie, going so far as to go slack and moan, “Take me!” as he approaches her. That’s a bizarrely sexual thing to have in a film aimed at kids, and even though her obsession is played for laughs, it struck me as a little strange.
The best part of the movie is that it feels like a sequel while managing to avoid feeling like just the second entry in a larger story. That may not make sense at first, but follow me here: How To Train Your Dragon 2 expands the universe and delivers some solid character development (as good sequels often do), but at the same time, it didn’t hint at a larger arc only to leave those story threads to be revealed in an inevitable third film. This movie is meant to be the second of a trilogy, but if the franchise ended right now, the story they’ve already told is complete and satisfying. In this era of Marvel-style franchise building, that’s a surprisingly rare thing to encounter. Also rare? An animated film that’s this strong on a visual, narrative, and emotional level.
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