A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2014

RANK: #13

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 jjjj
 

2014, PG, 112 mins.

 

Jay Baruchel as Hiccup (voice)  /  Cate Blanchett as Valka (voice)  /  Gerard Butler as Stoick the Vast (voice)  /  Craig Ferguson as Gobber (voice)  /  America Ferrera as Astrid (voice)  /  Jonah Hill as Snotlout (voice)  /  Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fishlegs (voice)  /  T. J. Miller as Tuffnut (voice)  /  Kristen Wiig as Ruffnut (voice)  /  Djimon Hounsou as Drago Bludvist (voice)  /  Kit Harington as Eret, Son of Eret (voice)

Written and directed by Dean Deblois

SCREENED IN

3D

This isn’t right.  It just isn’t.  Animated sequels – or sequels in general, for that matter – have no business being as good as HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. 

Alas, the technological and storytelling wizards behind Dreamworks’ follow-up to their surprise 2010 smash hit manages to fully match, if not surpass, the aesthetic palette of the first film, but it also daringly executes a fully realized story that further develops the characters and themes and takes them into new enthralling directions.  Kind of akin to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – a film that the makers publicly admitted drawing inspiration from – HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 not only looks and feels more awe inspiring than its predecessor, but it also audaciously traverses down some darker narrative alleys, which helps makes the film more enriching.  In short, and against all pressures typically imparted on sequels, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 never feels like a perfunctory or needless follow-up effort.  

I loved the first film, co-written and co-directed by Dean Deblois (now the soul man behind the camera for the sequel), which chronicled the unlikely friendship between a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced with natural sincerity by Jay Baruchel) and a young fallen dragon, Toothless.  That film preached a noble minded message of tolerance and understanding others that are different (seeing as dragons were public enemy number one for Hiccup’s Viking brethren) as it explored the young hero’s desire to get to know his sworn enemy instead of slaying it.  I admired the film’s endearing chronicling of the budding love between Hiccup and Toothless, not to mention that it was as masterfully envisioned and executed as any recent animated film I saw up until that point.  Now, Hiccup and Toothless have matured five years and the new film further explores their continued loving bond as well as new threats and revelations that get in the way of it. 

 

 

A considerable amount has changed since the last film.  Hiccup’s once dragon fearing Viking community has now been radically transformed into a peaceful domain where man and dragon live in harmony (nearly everyone has one).  The hamlet is still ruled over by Stoick (Gerard Butler, once again bringing bassy voiced gravitas to the part) and he still tries to convince his son Hiccup that he will one day inherent the throne from him.  Of course, the soft spoken and meager minded lad lacks the confidence of a bona fide leader and would rather spend all of his days hanging out with Toothless and exploring and mapping new lands.  His BFF turned girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera) believes that Hiccup gravely misjudges his worthiness to the inevitable responsibility of the throne.  

During one random exploration mission Hiccup comes in contact with a group of despotic warlords that specialize in hunting and capturing dragons.  They are led by Drago (Djimon Hounsou, in a voice performance of snarling intensity) that wishes to gather together all the dragons he can to amass his own unstoppable, world dominating army.  Hiccup wishes to meet with Drago and preach his message of dragon tolerance and respect as he successfully did with his father, yet Stoick fears that his son is being grossly naďve in thinking that he could reason with a madman.  Hiccup, always the risk taker and disregarder of authority, decides to journey out to meet Drago anyway, but on his trek he meets a highly skilled dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) that has her own secret commune filled with dragons.  She will stop at nothing to protect her cherished creatures, and when she reveals her real identity to Hiccup, his whole worldview is turned upside down. 

As stated, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 features a richer and more fully formed story than the already wonderful original.  Character development, which usually takes a back seat in so many conventional animated sequels, is given the utmost prominence here as we see the journey of Hiccup from an exuberant, but anxiety plagued young teen to an adult that now has an unfathomable amount of pressure placed upon him of filling the shoes of his larger-than-life father.  Hiccup’s chance meeting with Valka – who has emotional ties to both Hiccup and his father – further adds a layer of unexpected dramatic complexity to the film.  The film has a wonderfully terrifying villain in the form of Drago, who’s a physically imposing sadist that has, under his control, an unfathomably gigantic, Godzilla-esque alpha dragon that is able to warp the minds of other dragons and use them for his master’s needs.  Of course, when Toothless unavoidably comes under the monster’s spell, it creates tragic ripples in his friendship with Hiccup that may or may not be fixable. 

The sequel also manages to speak towards more meaningful messages than its antecedent, like lessons about forgiveness for past family indiscretions, the importance of preserving a potentially dying ecosystem, and heartbreaking loss.  More than ever, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is Hiccup’s ultimate coming-of-age tale, who is, against his will, forced to run an emotional gauntlet that threatens his loyalty and attachment with Hiccup and his father.  It’s so decidedly rare to witness a sequel that’s brave enough to take chances and avoid the needless storyline repetition that so often holds sequels back from being truly invigorating and unique.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 understands the solid foundation that its forerunner laid down and instead of just dryly regurgitating it, the film deepens and builds upon the established mythology.

The film is an absolute jaw-dropping technical marvel as well, which only goes to prove that Dreamworks not only rivals Pixar, but arguably surpasses them in the level of sheer artistry.  New animation programs were created and designed specifically for the purposes of making Hiccup and his fellow human character resonate with more authentic spontaneity and nuance, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.   As was the case with the first film, this sequel also showcases breathtaking aerial cinematography that has an awe inspiring pageantry that really gets us in the headspaces of the characters that ride these beasts through the heavens (the 3D utilized here is rare for how it actually compliments and enhances the visual experience).   The animators also intuitively know how to make Toothless one of the more endearingly loveable – but fierce and dangerous when he wants to be – characters in their animated film canon; he’s like a loveable cuddly feline that can turn ferocious predator when obligated to.  

I think that the quality of the superb voice performances here could easily get lost in the film’s extraordinary visual sheen.  Butler arguably has never been more soulful, commanding, and touching in his career – live action or not – as his Viking leader, and he’s well paired with Blanchett’s Valka, who gives the series a much needed empowered and head strong female presence.  Baruchel continues to nicely underplay his reluctant hero with a straight-laced eagerness and humility that’s rare in the animated genre.  Hounsou, as mentioned, is devilishly frightening as the chief antagonist.  The voice work, combined with the film’s soaring and exhilarating imagery and narrative - containing both frivolous merriment and shattering, mythology-breaking pathos - makes HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 the sequel to beat in a summer film season populated by franchise disappointments.  The first film was a stimulating and touching surprise to me, but this new film manages to soar to the heavens of even grander innovation and intrigue.  Right now, there might not be another franchise that can touch it.

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