Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett
Length: 102 min
Bigger, brasher, better? Up until the first How To Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks was very much a hit and miss production company that never showed any sign of stepping out of Pixar’s shadow – even then, Dean DeBlois’s simple, touching and critically acclaimed film (with recognition from the Academy Awards) was unfortunate enough to share a release year with Toy Story 3. Nevertheless, How To Train Your Dragon, proved that Dreamworks was still capable of delivering hits, and in the case of How To Train Your Dragon 2, the studio proved that it could forsake cheap laughs for an epic and deeply emotional tale that took its characters seriously.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a confident, stirring sequel that takes the fairly standard sequel approach of being ‘bigger’ than the last with faster pacing, but remains down compelling and down to earth, along with much higher stakes. Hiccup, voiced superbly by Jay Baruchel, is now 20 – a confident young adult (and tamer of dragons) rather than the awkward, gangly teenager of the first film. However, while Hiccup is now more comfortable in his own skin, the new possible burden of being the chief is something that troubles him, and provides a new angle of self-doubt for our hero. It is clear how much has changed in the 5 year gap, and the film doesn’t insult the audience with an overabundance of exposition and gets right into the action; embracing the profound change that Berk has undergone since the first instalment of the franchise. Every Viking in Berk now has their own dragon, and the town has adapted quite well to their new pets, presented in a dizzying opening sequence of dragon racing, which could quite easily be referred to as extreme Quidditch. In addition to this new exciting pastime, the Viking’s adoption of dragons has also provided a route into a much wider world, full of new environments, dragons, and danger.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Astrid (America Ferrara) is still the best at everything, Snotlout (Jonah Hill) is still pining after his peers, and Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig and TJ Miller, respectively) are still fighting, Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still reading out dragon attribute like he’s playing Top Trumps (he has actual cards this time), Gobber (Craig Ferguson) is still making slightly inappropriate wisecracks. Hiccup’s father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is still the Chief, however this time around he is much more light-hearted and has truly embraced the change that his son has brought to the village, and the character is used to extremely powerful effect this time round, as opposed to an ignorant obstacle for Hiccup to overcome.
Hiccup himself, is still mostly absent, out exploring the world with his pet dragon and best friend, Toothless. Toothless is still a genuinely fascinating creature, displaying great intelligence, humanity, vulnerability, and pretty much all of the most endearing qualities of domestic cats and dogs, and remains as lovable as ever. While the only other dragon that gets anything close to this kind of characterisation is Astrid’s dragon Stormfly, the creative team makes up for it with colourful, unique and often breath-taking designs. Also introduced to the cast is Cate Blanchett, as well as Kit Harington (known for his role as Jon Snow) and Djimon Hounsou as all-new threats to the dragon-riders of Berk. The new characters fit in well, Blanchett’s character seems a little shoehorned in; but while she may appear unimportant to the plot, her presence helps to bring more emotional depth to the film and Hiccup’s struggle with his identity.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a soaring success, easily holding up against this summer’s blockbusters, and remains a unique, mature, but accessible animated feature film.
While this may make the character development sound a little static, How To Train Your Dragon 2 really works as a truly necessary extension of the franchise, as opposed to a profit-grab á la Shrek: Forever After. The film works (for the most part) because the story and the characters demand that it exists, as will the third. Another unique strength of the film is its willingness to foray into surprisingly dark territory, refusing to take the ‘Disney route’ and avoid any kind of consequence. Even if it weren’t for the characters and the story, How To Train Your Dragon 2 would be worth the price of admission on the visuals alone – it is the first Dreamworks film to utilise their new animation software, and it pays off in spades. The environments we see in the film are near photo-realistic, and when the film slows down enough for the audience to drink in the environment, it is truly a sight to behold. How To Train Your Dragon, with the help of visual advisor Roger Deakins (cinematographer for Skyfall, True Grit and No Country For Old Men), was a surprisingly beautiful film, especially when Hiccup and Toothless took flight.
The case is the same with the sequel, and the cinematography is never boring: alternating between dizzying, almost impossible shots while in flight, and making sure to allow the audience to truly appreciate the dreamlike cloudscapes and staggeringly grand vistas. This is only enhanced by John Powell’s epic score. Joyous, epic, dark, and especially quiet when it needs to be, the soundtrack helps to elevate the film to a level of grandeur and intimacy unmatched by any other Dreamworks film. Additionally, the film’s confidence bleeds through into the soundtrack, when a Disney-esque moment occurs at the mid-point of the film, and thankfully, completely pays off, without feeling like a cheap imitation or gimmick.
This is not to say that the film is without its faults. The scale and pacing of the film means that it is also perhaps lacking in the simplicity and focus on isolated, personal moments that made the first so special; however this is not to say that there aren’t any moments like this at all. Additionally, some of the dialogue, on occasion, can give you a jarring reminder that you are still watching a family film, and Drago (Hounsou), as a villain, can feel quite generic. While the supporting cast gets plenty of screen time, I feel that in the future, the character of Gobber deserves some more time in the spotlight – especially considering his role as a kind of second father figure to Hiccup and Stoick’s long-time friend; he is a surprisingly compelling character considering his primary role as comic relief.
Nonetheless, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a soaring success, easily holding up against this summer’s blockbusters, and remains a unique, mature, but accessible animated feature film.