How to Train Your Dragon 2
(102 minutes, Rated PG)
This just happens to be the weekend of superior sequels; How to Train Your Dragon 2 not only surpasses the original, but also puts itself in the conversation for greatest DreamWorks Animation picture. While I still think Shrek 2’s ‘contained story’ (and I use that term loosely) is superior, this blockbuster fixes the original’s problems and tells a wonderful story that further establishes the Dragon universe. Furthermore, the scale of this animated feature is epic compared to DreamWorks’ previous efforts, which will keep both children and adults entertained with its gorgeous visuals and fast pace. The biggest improvement in Dragon 2 is the addition of a plotted story; while Hiccup’s shenanigans still drive the movie, a layered villain and eco-friendly sub-plot help bring life to a universe, whose only draw was the animation of the winged beasts.
Also, the sequel’s non-origin story and longer runtime allow the film to give a little bit of focus to the side characters. Even though Hiccup’s group of friends remain ‘slap-sticky,’ they do get some entertaining sub-plots; I found Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Snoutlout’s (Jonah Hill) competition to win the affection of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), both entertaining and goofy. However, both the kids and Craig Ferguson’s Gobber never really break out of their ‘comedic relief’ roles, yet that is not a problem because that is what they are supposed to be: side characters designed as fodder for the children demographic.
With that said, the leads actually get layered roles. Again, Hiccup is just as entertaining in this as his origin story; I cannot see anybody but Jay Baruchel playing this role because it is perfectly tailored to the actor’s personality. Also, Hiccup has a fantastic arch to his storyline; a lot of the time animators do not know what to do with sequels, so they change the protagonist to suit their needs. Yet, all of his actions felt true to the character that audiences fell in love with in 2010.
As for the love interest Astrid (America Ferrera), I was one of the few who found her character a bit whiny and annoying in the original; she never fully became the badass notion that the writers’ were desperately trying for. But in the sequel, her sub-plot, which is without Hiccup, is just as interesting and helps her to become the strong-female character that I always expected and wanted.
Furthermore, the introduction of Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s mother, added a layer of depth to all of the main players: including Stoick (Gerard Butler), the village chief who has grown considerably since his introduction. Yes, the idea of finding the long lost parent is an incredibly cliché plot device, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 uses it effectively. The scene where Stoick professes his love to Valka is heart-warming and will leave even the most detached audience members choked up.
And Valka, who is a dragon master like her son, is one of the coolest female characters in the history of animated features; she is strong, independent, but actually has depth, which is lacking in mainstream society’s depiction of stronger females. Though I did not totally agree with some of the choices that the writers made with her character, at least her damsel moment is short and quickly forgotten, which allows Valka to return to the perfectly established badass that initially graced the big screen.
Finally, the intimidating villain Drago, who is voiced by the underrated Djimon Hounsou, is menacing, powerful and actually threatening. While I know the conclusion of this kids flick will likely by optimistic, the threat of his character always felt real; the idea that you cannot negotiate with evil is a scary notion that perfectly displays the very adult themes of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Even Valka states that Drago cannot be reasoned with and his control over dragons should not be a slight against the creatures: the adult concept that “good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things” is a scary comment that transcends time. With that said, Hounsou’s performance, which can be seen as over the top, perfectly encapsulates a villain with nothing left to lose; and Drago’s arch is quite scary, especially for the younger viewers. As a result, though Dragon 2 maintains humor throughout, this villain adds a dark undertone that is lacking in today’s kids movies.
And this goes for the aforementioned visuals; the gorgeous animation certainly maintains a bright array of colors throughout, but during the sinister scenes with Drago, the bright colors are dulled perfectly. Even with that, the sequel somehow maintains a stunning look that rivals Pixar’s animation. Also, even with my hatred for 3D, this is the type of movie that the experience was made for; between the depth of frame or the amazing flying scenes, the three dimension immerses the viewer into the experience. And the three dimension works well with the film’s depth of frame; the director brilliantly fills each shot with several layers of activity. For instance, the emotional scene of Hiccup meeting Valka for the first time has a hilarious background encounter between Toothless and another dragon; and luckily, Dean DeBlois effectively uses this technique throughout.
But the direction also had its fair share of drawbacks; the climactic battle scene between the two ‘Alpha dragons’ is marred by poor choices. The shot selection hurts the scale of the battle; the skyscraper-like dragons’ fight looks tamed compared to the previous scenes. Perhaps, the gorgeous visuals and epic scale maintained throughout hindered the impact of this gargantuan encounter. Furthermore, though the score of How to Train Your Dragon 2 is fun during the flying scenes, the battle sequences has music that feels out of place and further encumbers the impact of said climactic encounters. Yes, this is a small grievance in an overall highly entertaining product, but the somewhat poor battle scenes between Drago and Stoick hold this back from ‘Pixar-like’ success (and I mean the good Pixar movies, not Brave or the horrendous Cars films).
There are also some consistent problems with the script, which has an improved story, but still maintains the unpolished pitfalls of the original. Again, the writers seem to telegraph every major plotline in this picture; even a twist in the third act is blatantly hinted throughout. Add consistent plot holes, and one has to wonder if they rushed the script to get this movie done for a summer 2014 release. However, all is forgiven because, like the first one, How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like it was made with a lot of care. The heart that went into this picture helps the emotional impact of certain storylines; there were several parts where I knew the outcome, but it did not mar the emotional impact. The main reason is like its predecessor, this displays the ‘show do not tell’ philosophy of filmmaking. It also helps that it maintains a self-aware style throughout, even with the darker storyline; but all in all, even with the flaws, the script is a huge improvement over past DreamWorks Animation efforts.
Again, How to Train Your Dragons 2 is nowhere near the best of Pixar, yet it shows that DreamWorks Animation is improving with each feature: even if some products, like The Croods, make it feel like that they are taking steps in the wrong direction. But at least, this flick improved on the original’s faults and has me excited for the inevitable ‘threequel.’ I cannot recommend this film enough for both fans and newbies because all can appreciate the amount of passion that went into this project. Who would have thought, two sequels in one weekend and they are both significantly better than the original. This has to be a Twilight Zone episode.