Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, Kit Harrington, Cate Blanchett, Dijimon Hounsou
Director: Dean DeBlois
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In it's swooping, romantic, free-flowing grandness, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is that rarest of all things in the sequel universe; a film that actually expands upon the richly created world of the first movie while also broadening its themes into more complex territory. 2010's How To Train Your Dragon remains an animated classic; a film that showcased the wonder and beauty of flight as well a touching story of a young boy named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless, a "night fury" that learned to trust and bond with his human master. That human/dragon relationship, so tender and emotionally satisfying, was the heart of the film, even as the screen oozed with amazing visual sights. With How To Train Your Dragon 2, writer-director Dean DeBlois has upped the ante in terms of animated bombast and dramatic stakes, but hasn't completely forgotten about the bond between Hiccup and Toothless, which remains the series' most grounded element.
The sign of a successful sequel is being able to expand upon the strengths of the first film while also throwing in enough new wrinkles so that you aren't just slightly reworking the magic. DeBlois avoids "sequelitis" by a) setting the story a few years after the last installment and b) introducing a slew of new characters and thematic elements that are darker and more serious in nature. The aging of the characters (Hiccup, for example, is now on the verge of adulthood) is a bold move, and quite uncommon among animated fare. It not only means that Hiccup and Toothless' relationship is more mature and complicated than in the first film, but it also gives DeBlois the ability to introduce ideas involving the uncertainty of the future and mortality. This shift toward a darker tone than the fantasy/romance vibe of the first movie is somewhat expected given the story's focus on a fracture in the peace between dragons and vikings, but the confidence to which DeBlois and his uber-talented crew of animators plunge into territory that will undoubtably go over the heads of young children, is noteworthy.
The story here involves Hiccup's push and pull relationship with his father Stoick (Gerard Butler), his growing romance with Astrid (America Ferrera), and a dangerous confrontation with a swashbuckling dragon hunter (Kit Harrington, gamely spoofing his Game of Thrones persona). This run-in not only opens the possibility that vikings and dragons are still very much at odds with each other despite what's occurring in Hiccup's hometown of Berk, but also makes way for a war-mongering, dreadlocked villain named Drago (Dijimon Hounsou). Along with those two new characters and the band of misfits from the first film; Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller), How To Train Your Dragon 2 introduces a third major character that enriches the overall created universe as well as affects Hiccup's changing view of the world. It's a reveal better left unspoiled, but for the purposes of this review, it should be stated that it's one of the more dynamic female characters to appear in an animated picture in some time, and one with a profound backstory and intricate relationship with dragons.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is bigger and more epic than its predecessor, but perhaps because of this, slightly less emotionally gratifying. Though the film does have it's fair share of emotionally affecting moments (a scene where two characters lovingly sing to one another, for example, is priceless), it's insistent on staying true to the adage "more is better" means some of the innocence and warmth of the original is lost. Likewise, Hounsou's bad guy is a pretty generic villain, and a disappointingly ethic one to boot. It's a bit disturbing that the only dark-skinned character in the entire film is a bloodthirsty warlord prone to primitive whopping and relentless destruction. Additionally, though the introduction of a new strong female character is welcome, the sidelining of Astrid, so fierce and independent in the first film, as little more than a dewey-eyed love interest here is a bit of a step backwards. It's understandable that some of the original film's charm would be swallowed by the sequels heightened dramatic heft and juggling of newly introduced world-building elements, but there's still a sense that perhaps DeBlois tried to juggle one dragon too many.
On a more positive note, the animation has improved considerably over the last 4 years, and the action sequences, many of which have Hiccup and Toothless dive-bombing into a sea of computer generated mayhem, are consistently jaw-dropping. The insane variety of dragons, meanwhile, is an extraordinary sight to behold, with several occurrences where the screen is literally overflowing with flying beasties. Meanwhile, John Powell's propulsive score and the influence of renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins as a "visual consultant", lifts the picture above the usual glut of animated flicks being churned out of the studio system these days. More than anything, How To Train Your Dragon 2 soars not on the basis of its plot or even the bond between Hiccup and Toothless (which still remains a highlight), but rather with the awe-inspiring sensation of being suspended in flight; swooping, falling, and dancing with the clouds.