In 2010, How to Train Your Dragon was a massive success. A refreshing step out of Dreamworks’ then typical comfort zone of movies driven by humor and dry pop culture gags, it was a heartfelt and enchanting movie that quickly set word of mouth on fire, leading it to become a consistent box office success (including reaching number one at the box office, four weeks after its original debut), cementing it as the sleeper hit of the year. I myself found the movie irresistible, not only because of how touching and captivating it was, but for the bold moves its filmmakers had made. It also doesn’t hurt that it was the best 3D I had ever seen in a movie, and to this day, still is.
Obviously, with this kind of adoration, that’s putting a lot of pressure on the inevitable sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and believe me, this type of movie was exactly what I needed. After last year’s weak slate of animated features (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again), it’s refreshing that we are now leaps and bounds ahead of it in quality. As for how this film stands, not only does it match the first film in quality, it goes even further… It surpasses it in every conceivable aspect.
Set five years after the events of the original, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) spends many of his days charting the landscape of the new world with his dragon companion Toothless, discovering new species of dragons, and trying to deal with the expected responsibility of being Berk’s future chief, something thrust upon him by his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). However, during his adventures, he soon learns that a vicious Viking, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), intends to build an army of dragons for global conquest, and tyrannical reign of all the dragons in the world. Adding to the mix is when Hiccup meets his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), presumed dead for years, and has been rescuing dragons in secret. With the aid of his family, and his friends, including Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup intends to stop Bludvist’s onslaught, and save humans and dragons alike.
Now under the sole direction of Dean DeBlois, the original film’s co-director (alongside Chris Sanders, who now serves as an executive producer this time around), How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a film that does what any great sequel should, serving as a proper continuation and enhancement, and not a rehash. Darkening up the tone of the first installment, this immediately springs to mind classics such as The Empire Strikes Back. While not without signature wisecracks and silliness, the film doesn’t pull punches when it wants to be serious. Rather than succumb to the all too enticing “More, more, more” mindset, the film instead opts to keep an intimate focus on its characters, effectively toning down the grandiose tone when necessary. The stakes are higher and more personal than ever before, friendships and other various relationships are pushed to the limit, there are dire consequences for actions, testing your emotions from beginning to end. I don’t want to get into great detail for fear of spoiling anything substantial, but the film pulls very bold moves that pay off well, and in fact, some of them so devastating, you’ll be begging for it to pull a Deus Ex Machina.
Without doubt, the best thing about this film is the multitude of great characters and their chemistry. They are brimming with so much depth, so much memorable personality, and often in silence. As it should be in any great animated feature, many of the best moments of the film are those with minimal dialogue, where story is told through simple body language and expressions. These are especially meaningful in bonding scenes featuring the dragons, embracing a less is more mode of storytelling. This allows the non-speaking dragons, even the most insignificant ones, so much room to develop their characters and personalities, especially Toothless and fantastic newcomer Cloudjumper. The humans are no less great. Hiccup continues to learn more as a dragon rider, but also has to come to grips with the important responsibility he’s expected to deliver on, a nervous realization I’m sure anyone can relate to. His continuing relationship with Astrid provides some of the most charming moments of the film (the way they work off each other is so irresistible), his relationship with his father provides many of the movie’s most affecting moments, and his back-and-forths with Gobber (Craig Ferguson) provide several of the film’s biggest laughs. Even the group of Dragon riders, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Ruffnut and Tuffnut, all return, and while getting showcased more as a group than individually, still don’t feel sidelined.
The film also features several new major characters, who all mesh with the old ones perfectly. Valka, Hiccup’s mother, is one of the film’s most genuine rays of joy, set up through a fantastic back story, fearless and protective, educational and nurturing, and even her slightest movements are just fascinating, as the years of living with dragons have made her movements quite animalistic. In contrast to Valka’s joyful demeanor, Drago Bludvist is a straight up, vile monster of a man. With years of trauma and unforgiving rage fueling him, he is a terrorizing, menacing, manipulative, and violent force to be reckoned with. One of the absolute best characters, one not showcased much in the trailers, turns out to be dragon hunter Eret, voiced by Game of Thrones mainstay Kit Harrington. His character arc is one of the most interesting in the film, he’s deceitful and cocky at times, he’s knowledgeable and cunning, he’s very no-nonsense, but they still manage to get some good comedy out of him.
In the technical specs, the film is a jewel. The film’s visuals, achieved with the consultancy of photography giant Roger Deakins, are a product of such unabashed, unbridled imagination, none the least of which include the designs of the new dragons (which the animators clearly had a lot of fun coming up with). The animation truly gets to shine in the fabulously realized new lands and heightened scope, and especially in those spectacular flight sequences. Speaking of which, those scenes are hair-raising in 3D, which I recommend is the way you see this film, and in IMAX if possible (though admittedly, due to my local theater’s tacky scheduling, I was not able to experience it that way). The sound is every bit as good, with Randy Thom’s dragon vocalization’s boasting incredible creativity, and John Powell’s music expanding and refining on the first film’s score (one of my favorite film scores of all time) with a healthy, robust, superbly realized mixture of old and new compositions.
To be honest, I have nothing to criticize this movie for. Everything in this film has been taken to the next level, enhancing the thematic development of the first, building upon its lore and scope, and giving us what is simply a perfect movie. I mean, when a movie takes something as deceptively mundane sounding as “facts about dragons”, and somehow manages to make it entertaining, there’s something to be said for it. Honestly, it’s the best animated feature I have seen in years, and certainly Dreamworks Animation's best effort to date. So, yeah, I think it’s even better than the first, and with how much I adore the first, that’s not to be taken as faint praise. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the best movie you are going to see all summer. If you loved the first film, you WILL love this one.
***** / *****