Rise Above It All
How To Train Your Dragon was a charming rarity; a beautifully animated family film that thrilled and entertained without pandering to children or flinging about unwelcome pop-culture references for adults. But no matter how wonderful or original a film is, sequel territory is always difficult. From the outset it’s obvious How To Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a simple regurgitation of its predecessor but a bold evolutionary step forward for the franchise with a healthy mature story, improved visuals and a fittingly resonate score.
Since the first movie, the inhabitants of Berk have accepted dragons as an everyday part of life, altering their livelihoods from weapon-making to saddle construction and incorporating dragon riding races as a local pastime. And yet the instigators of this change, Hiccup [Baruchel] and his dragon Toothless, are often missing from the village’s day-to-day life. Now in his early twenties, Hiccup has become a restless explorer, developing his own gliding equipment and venturing further and further into unchartered territory. On one such expedition, he encounters a ship of dragon trappers who have been tasked to hunt every dragon and bring them to the dark and powerful Drago Bludvist [Hounsou]. Convinced he can negotiate with Drago (after successfully educating his own village), Hiccup sets out to arrange a meeting. Before he can do this, however, Hiccup is ambushed by a mysterious and ever-so-slightly feral masked dragon rider, named Valka [Blanchett]. I’d say spoiler but it’s in all the trailers.. it’s his long-lost mum.. so.. surprise! After finally meeting Drago and witnessing the size of his dragon army, it quickly becomes apparent that the threat is very real and all of Berk and every dragon in the land are at risk of uniting under Drago’s banner, with the aid of a behemoth dragon known as the alpha.
I’ll admit I haven’t seen the spin-off/tie-in series which acts as a bridge between this film and the last one. But that evidently doesn’t matter because the film brings all the character development up to speed with complete ease. Once again, Jay Baruchel proves that he is a very capable and emotive actor, who just happens to have a nasally voice, and commands this entire feature with ease. The inclusion of Cate Blanchett and Djimon Hounsou are welcome additions and provide almost unrecognisable performances as Valka and Drago respectively. If I’m honest, I think the inclusion of Kit Harington as Eret the dragon trapper is a little on the nose, considering his Game Of Thrones origins but I’ll admit he serves his purpose well and offers a solid performance. With regards to the returning cast, the character development feels very natural. The scenes with Hiccup and Astrid display a completely believable relationship without stooping to the typical cinematic tropes, Stoick and Hiccup’s interactions with Valka are wrought with painful awkwardness that neither feels forced nor rushed, the friendship between the other dragon riders is apparent but indicative of actual interactions. In a way, this animated film about Vikings riding dragons is more realistic than the majority of films and programmes depicting teenage life. Speaking of realistic portrayals, Toothless continues to be a tremendous character that avoids the trappings of “make the animal like a dog so kids can relate” which appears in almost every animated film. Furthermore, I love the notion that the group alpha isn’t always the biggest or smartest but the one with the strength of will to confront danger and protect the group.
From a technical standing, this film is visually lush and insanely detailed with exemplary use of stop-motion adding to the surreal realism (you know, ’cause of the very cartoony looking characters). On top of that, John Powell returns with another lively score laced with darker tones that add to the suspense and danger. But in earnest, the technical aspects are merely the tools used to populate and present this fictional land. Even the voice actors are effective place-holders to a certain degree. One of the film’s strongest elements is the aforementioned mature evolution. The first film is a touching story of a boy finding his best friend and connecting with his father. Here we have the story of a boy becoming a man and finding his societal place in the process. I mean, these are incredibly simple themes but they are layered and presented with a deft subtlety that they ring true. And it’s this respect for the concept of what a sequel should be that elevates the entire proceeding. Another point of note is the avoidance of using heavy-handed emotional manipulation, as so often depicted in Disney. Instead, Dreamworks have managed to capture that golden quality that only Pixar seemed capable of delivering (before they were bought back by Disney). Sure, you have the scary bad guy, the love interest, the bickering friends, the love triangles, the reuniting of a mother, the death of a major character, animals doing things they regret and displaying remorse and courage – things which are stable drag-and-drop attributes for countless disappointing family films but it’s the way in which they’re packaged and utilised that makes them standout.
Truth be told, there aren’t a great deal of negative points about this movie. The biggest frustration is the lack of time dedicated to supporting character exploration. Arguably, this could be present in the TV series and therefore would feel like repetition for fans of both the film and series but it still leaves a slight hole. Either way, it’s not that much of an issue, the real problem stems from the villain, Drago Bludvist, who is glazed over a little. His origin is shrouded in mystery and all we know is that he suffered greatly at the hands of dragons and set out to master them through fear and dominance.. with a dragon-skin cloak and metal arm.. that he acquired.. somehow. But aside from that minor setback, it’s pretty much gold and with another season on the way, I should imagine another film won’t be far behind – something I’m actually optimistic about.
11th July 2014
The Scene To Look Out For:
**Spoiler of the largest kind within**
Ok, so a main character dies. And in a way it’s a really obvious choice. After patching up with his father in the first film and resisting the burden of being announced as chief (i.e. replacing his father) in this movie, there was going to be an eventual emotional conflict. But thankfully, it’s actually a surprise. You half think they’ll bring him back somehow or he’s not really dead or he’ll have some God-awful wisdom to impart in his final breath but there’s none of that. He’s just dead and it’s cutting and the assailant doesn’t realise what’s happened; the whole thing is exceptionally orchestrated and only confirms the prowess with which this story is handled.
I must confess, I really like the silly love-triangle competition between Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut. And adding Eret to the complication only heightened the humour every time they referenced it or brought it back. So. Them. All four of them.
“I was so afraid of becoming my dad.. mostly because I thought I never could”
In A Few Words:
“Colourful, playful, dramatic and surprisingly tender, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an extremely commendable continuation that defines the term ‘good sequel'”