Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon was refreshing. Setting new standards for book adaptations and animated films, Dragon somehow was everything you look for in an entertaining kid’s movie. It had a tight hero’s journey story (that was nuanced enough for adults and respected kids’ intelligence), good looking visuals, a great voice cast, and it managed all of this while being cute as a button.
Good thing its sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, keeps the momentum going as it raises the bar for sequels going forward. With how prevalent inadequate sequels/prequels/reboots have been in Hollywood lately, I’d forgive you for fearing Dragon 2 would suffer the same fate. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about that one bit. Cheap little throwaways are not going to cut it anymore.
We’ve got a contender for Best Animated Film of 2014 right here folks.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Release Date: June 13, 2014
How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes place five years after the events of the original (and don’t worry if you haven’t seen the original, the plot is helpfully explained in a few sentences) as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now a 20 year old man, is in line to become the next chief of Berk. But even if his father, Stoic (Gerard Butler), wants him to take over, Hiccup is unsure of himself and during his travels stumbles on to a den of dragons watched over by a mysterious woman (Cate Blanchett) from Hiccup’s past. When dragon tamer and madman, Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), threatens Berk with an enslaved dragon army, it’s up to Hiccup and his ragtag group of friends to save the day.
To coincide with Hiccup’s older age (he’s no longer an awkward teen), I’m sure you can grasp from the synopsis that Dragon 2 is a far darker film than the original. In a nice touch, the bright and expressive colors of the original have been dimmed a bit (but not so much as to lose personality) to reflect the film’s tonal changes. But it’s not all grim either as there a brief hints of levity throughout. But with a more mature tone, however, the film also alienates much of the series’ original intended audience. Those kids led into the series with Toothless’ cutesy antics will get some of that here, but it’s been pushed to the wayside.
With this decisive maturity, Dragon 2 is free to explore grander themes. There are lots of conflicting ideologies (complete with philosophical debates between the virtues of war and peace), yet at the same time, Hiccup is both trying to find a peace within himself and with the world as adults threaten to ruin it. In fact, there is an underlying message within the film (sometimes bluntly stated) that the old world needs to die in order for the new reign to take over. Although the scenes overflow with action, it’s all just a physical manifestation of Hiccup’s inner turmoil. As he questions what kind of leader he could be, the audience is shown examples of the two extremes he’s trying to avoid (the overbearing dictator and the motherly diplomat). But even if you don’t catch any of these themes under the surface, there is still plenty to enjoy.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is absolutely gorgeous. Although the world’s colors have been dimmed, beauty has not been sacrificed. From wonderfully animated flight scenes, to crisp landscape shots, and to believable animal movements (Toothless and another dragon have a hilarious conversation in movements as they bob their heads a lot). The cast is still in fine form too as Hiccup’s friends provide much of the film’s humor (the best gag involving all of them fighting over the one single female in the group). Djimon Hounsou is a great villain whose booming voice provided the right amount of intensity, Gerard Butler is fabulously stoic as Stoic (and yes, that’s a grammar joke the film makes), and Cate Blanchett is a worthy addition. The only problems lie with America Fererra and Craig Ferguson whose voices don’t really fit (Ferguson’s just there to yell jokes). Jay Baruchel, however, hits the mark as his delivery still has an awkward tone but he’s steadied enough to show growth.
All in all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s captivating, striking, and every other buzzword a critic like me gets to use from time to time. It absolutely deserves it. It’s not a perfect film by any means (as children will no longer enjoy it, some of the jokes are a little too hokey), but it’s enjoyable and it’s over before you even begin to pick apart the faults. It’s the perfect Summer film.
One last thing, I saw Dragon 2 in 3D. Given the lackluster nature of most 3D films, I never explicitly mention this in any of my reviews, but with Dragon 2 I’ll make an exception. It uses 3D so well, I’d go as far to say you’re missing out if you see it without that third dimension.