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Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): Written and directed by Dean DeBlois.  Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, American Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher  Mintz- Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kirsten Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harrington.  Running Time: 102 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            As far as animation goes, 2014 is already leagues ahead of last year’s disappointingly lackluster offerings, with the off-the-wall and brilliantly deconstructive Lego Movie and the mind-boggling plays on gravity in Patema Inverted easily outstripping every single major animated film released in 2013 (yes, including Frozen).  Awaiting all of us down the line is the newest work from the Wunderkinds at Laika Animation, The Boxtrolls, along with the German theatrical release of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.  And now we have How To Train Your Dragon 2, yet another incredibly effective sequel from Dreamworks Pictures, which has basically become the Anti-Disney/Sky Blue in terms of how to handle franchises with respect and dignity. 

            Like with Dreamwork’s other two remarkably excellent sequels, Shrek 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2, Dragon 2 builds expertly off the fascinating and potential-filled world of the first movie without repeating storylines.  It has been 5 years since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) lost his leg in a fight against a massive alpha dragon near the village of Berk.  Now, the lives of the Vikings and the dragons are intertwined, the village having been expanded to include dragon stables, smithies designed to create dragon armor and saddles, feeding and washing machines, and a massive arena for the sport of dragon-riding, which involves using hilariously expressive sheep like footballs. 

            The opening scene showing this sport is a thrilling pull into the movie’s world, and it expands in meticulous detail when it cuts over to Hiccup, pointedly avoiding both the game and (as we learn later) his father Stoic (Gerard Butler at his most Scottish), who has decided he wants Hiccup to succeed him as chief.  His opening flight with Toothless is reminiscent of their first transcendent exploration of the skies in the first movie, but on a far grander scale.  They dive underneath the tails of great waves, and soar through veritable cathedrals of clouds, before Hiccup tests out his new gadget- a set of his own wings and fin to allow him to glide along the clouds next to Toothless.  Oh, that and he also wields a sword that shoots out both fire and combustible gas. 

            Even though he is extremely uninterested in becoming chief as per his father’s wishes, both his life of exploration and his deepening romance with Astrid (America Ferrera) seem to be pretty much ideal.  The threat of open war, however, comes knocking in several forms; an encounter with an arrogant dragon hunter names Eret (voiced by Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame), the appearance of a mysterious vigilante dragon rider, and rumors that a vicious warlord named Drago Bludvist (an ever-solid Djimon Hounsou) is once again on the march.  And that is where I will cease any explicit mentions of the story, because the turns this movie takes are too good (and in some cases, too dark) to even contemplate spoiling. 

            Now hang on a second, I know what you’re thinking- don’t the trailers already the spoil the big reveal that the wild, masked dragon rider is actually Hiccup’s Mother?  Well, yes, they do, and yes, that was incredibly stupid of them, because that reveal is a great scene that would have packed a wallop had it been kept under wraps.  However, in some ways that lone tidbit ends up being a bit of a false herring.  She appears fairly quickly in the movie, in the first act, and after that there is another solid hour or so of narrative turns that you rarely ever see in a children’s movie, or at least ones you don’t see outside of greats like The Iron Giant.  Themes like handling physical disability, the merits of pacifism vs. active self-defense, the loss of a parent, the aging love of a middle-aged couple, and even sexuality (I swear to God, I am not pulling your leg) all come in to play at various points and to varying degrees.  Can anyone here think of another “kid’s movie” from the States that touches on all of the above within an hour-and-a-half?  Because I can’t.  Certainly nothing from Disney, or any other works by Dreamworks.  Even Pixar can’t boast that impressive a checklist (Up being perhaps the closest). 

            That said, I can’t pretend there are zero issues with the story.  The prevalence of so many themes and ideas means that some are left more unexplored than others, especially when you consider that, you know, being a children’s film and all, the movie is also required by law to be under two hours while still hitting the needed story beats to make it “marketable” (translate to “normal enough for adults to be okay with it”).  In particular, I was sorry to see Astrid play much more of a side role than she in the last film, and although I am interested to see what they do with the third film slated for release in 2016, I will be sorely disappointed if she does not get a much expanded role. 

            Even though, as with many American animated films, I can’t help but wish for just a bit more, there are so many moving pieces hitting the right notes that I can’t help but love this movie, warts and all.  When given the choice, I will still pick hand-drawn or stop-motion animation over CGI anyday, but there’s no denying how far the technology has come in the last few years.  The texture of the characters, the dragons, and the land they inhabit is sharper and more detailed than ever before, especially when I compare it with the first film, which now actually looks slightly dated in comparison.  The flight sequences embody the kind of no-holds-barred freedom employed by Patema Inverted in the floating chase sequences.  Even if you don’t see it in 3D you’ll want to jump out of your seat and fly right along with Hiccup. 

            Like with the first one though, this film is also far more than just a series of pretty images.  The soundtrack, again provided by John Powell, ranks alongside the score for Unforgiven as one of the best I’ve yet heard this year, although I did miss the absence of the music used in the initial teaser trailer.  There are a lot of character moments that reach beautiful emotional heights.  Hiccup’s relationships with Astrid, Stoic, Gobber (Stoic’s close friend and advisor), Toothless, and later his mother (whose name, we learn, is Valka) are not phoned in- they are dynamic, trusting, unique, and feel eminently real.  This goes double for the scene where Stoic and Valka are reunited after nearly 20 years of separation, which, unlike the occasionally overblown Fault In Our Stars, actually did get the tears gathering around the edges of my eyes. 

            There are fights and battles in the climactic third act, but they ultimately carry less weight by the end and simply don’t feel as significant (although their scale is nothing but impressive), because the really great stuff in the movie centers around the characters.  Which is, in my mind, as it should be.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a great movie, a wonderful visual adventure to experience, and is another rare film where the extra cash for the 3D is absolutely worth it.  It goes big on the animation and action, but anchors itself in the small moments that make us actually want the good guys to come out okay.  Which sets it leagues ahead of most big-budget summer flicks these days. 

-Noah Franc 

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