The original How to Train Your Dragon was something of a surprise back in 2010. We thought that Avatar had showed us all the 3D flight sequences we would need for the rest of our lives, and the trailers gave off a fairly run of the mill kid’s movie vibe. However, what we got was actually a film reminiscent of early Spielberg. Epic in scope, but very sweet at heart, with a touching and funny ‘boy and his dragon’ relationship at it’s heart. Now we’re back 4 years later, and much like it’s competitor, 22 Jump Street, the blessing of low expectations has lifted. I for one, was fairly cynical that they could live up to the original. After all, the first one was so self contained, where could they possibly go.
The greatest complement I can give this is, they definitely went somewhere.
We rediscover the people Berk five years after Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) showed them that the Dragons that inhabit the skies are actually friendly, and trainable. Now, dragon racing is a regular part of the culture, and Hiccup is about to become the chief of the village after his father, Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler). On a seemingly routine flight, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless encounter a group of Dragon Hunters lead by Eret (Kit Harrington), who are trying to round up dragons for an evil army lead by Drago (Djimon Hounsou). At the same time, Hiccup encounters a mysterious rider who turns out to be his long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).
While I wouldn’t say that this is a great film overall, it has a couple of really strong elements. First and foremost, I loved the world building this time around. There are so many different dragon designs, riding techniques, and inventive locations in this film. It’s a near-perfect meld of cute, and bad-ass. Everything feels rich, and lived in. There’s a culture to these characters, and it’s always fun, especially in a sequel to watch characters who are competent in what they do, the learning curve coming from within, and this film delivers that in spades.
The interactions between the main characters feels a lot more naturalistic this time around. My main gripe with the first movie was Jay Baruchel as Hiccup. While he is a fine comedic actor, his Jerry Lewis esque voice is perhaps his least appealing quality. However, he really settles into the role here. Hiccup is a lot more assured this time around, and Baruchel’s performance reflects that by pulling back upon those more annoying vocal ticks. As such, Hiccup becomes a wonderfully fun protagonist, witty and sardonic, while also caring and noble with a highly welcome intelligence. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is still just as strong, Toothless being a wonderfully expressive and funny character despite never uttering a word. There’s a real man/pet bond there, and when they’re working together, it’s beautiful to watch.
Butler and Blanchett also get a couple wonderful scenes, where they really get to express some genuine emotion. This is one of the first animated films where the dialogue actually feels like real people talking to one another, transcending their animated form. They banter, they discuss, and they anguish as we do.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kit Harrington. I’m a big Game of Thrones fan, and while he’s certainly grown on me, I’ve always found Harrington’s performance as Jon Snow to be missing something. Here, he proves that all of those gripes are in the direction. His performance here is spirited, funny, and three dimensional. I would argue that it’s his best work to date. Glad to see him having fun.
The action here is also spectacular, and rivals that of most of the live action blockbusters this summer. There’s so much going on, and yet, we never loose track of what’s going on in the frame. Director Dean DeBlois gives it all a very immediate feeling, giving us some massive sweeping shots as we fly with the characters. It’s like if J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a graphic novel. Such a sense of scale and intensity, and as we come to find out, consequence. Everything in this film has weight, rare in an animated film.
Ultimately, despite all of those wonderful pieces, what ultimately keeps this film from being great is the story. It’s just not as strong as before. The first film really had a sense of stakes. We really cared about weather on not the dragons would be accepted, and the prejudice of the people who were the alleged good guys was fascinating. Here, despite the conflict itself being larger, it just doesn’t feel as important. Drago is a really generic villain who basically just yells and screams a lot, and even despite the gut punch we get about three quarters through, it never feels as though he is going to win. With that said, the strength of the character moments make the story workable in the long run.
Also, while the main characters are wonderful. the supporting ones are fairly useless. It’s a band of comedians ranging from Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and TJ Miller who just riff alongside the action. Some of it is funny, but ultimately, they feel pretty unneeded and completely without depth. Even Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), who was a wonderful character before, gets pushed to the sidelines here, and that’s pretty disappointing, especially for female fans.
In the end, How to Train Your Dragon 2 does win out against some fairly crippling flaws. It manages to retain the feel of the original, and give us a blend of character with great visuals and action. Seriously, if you see this one, see it in the theater, it’s a spectacular showcase for how far animation has come. It’s not as strong as the first one, but it certainly is a worthy sequel, and I look forward to another ride with the people of Berk.