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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 review

June 14, 2014

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written by: Dean DeBois

produced by: Bonnie Arnold

directed by: Dean DeBlois

rating: PG (for adventure action and some mild rude humor)

runtime: 102 min.

U.S. release date: June 13, 2014

 

Back in 2010, DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” soared into theaters and blew everyone away with it’s rich visuals, spirit of adventure and poignant story. Really. I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, that hasn’t either thoroughly enjoyed it or, in the very least, praised the feature’s wonderful tale of acceptance and compassion (to name a few themes) and, of course, vikings and fire-breathing dragons. A sequel was inevitable and, to be honest, quite welcome. I vividly recall being disappointed when the first movie was over. I wanted more time with the boy and his dragon.

Well, that’s exactly what the studio was hoping for. Not only was a second film a no-brainer, but since the source material is a series of children’s books by Cressida Crowell, multiple movies is a forgone conclusion. In fact, there’s already talk about a fourth film and if the studio maintains this kind of talent and creativity, then I say bring it, because “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is probably the best animated feature since the first one (well, it’s a dead-even tie with “Toy Story 3”, which came out the same year). In this first sequel, we are once again given a beautifully, made feature that reunites us with endearing characters and the life-like environments they inhabit. Yet, here is a sequel that impressively avoids repetition by expanding its world-building, providing layered (and engaging) development for its main characters and  introducing absorbing new characters.

 

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Five years have passed since Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) brought unity to the Viking land of Berk by proving his people can coexist with the winged dragons they used to fear and hunt. There is a noticeably content harmony now, with the dragons serving as more than just pets by providing fire for forging weaponry and participating in racing games where sheep are treated like fluffy basketballs. Hiccup is seen as a hero and his burly father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the chief of the land, couldn’t be prouder. He even envisions Hiccup one day taking his place, despite his son shirking such responsibilities. It’s not that Hiccup doesn’t respect his father’s position or isn’t honored by his Stoick’s faith in him, it’s just that he doesn’t feel he possesses the same leadership qualities. He’s still trying to find himself, his place.

While the rest of Berk go about their business, curious Hiccup travels the outlying areas as a cartographer, discovering new terrain with his loyal friend Toothless, a rare Night Fury dragon. The two have are one now moreso than ever. Hiccup, ever the inventive one, has crafted a way to fly through the air alongside his dragon pal. Both of them can now enjoy the freedom of gliding and diving through the skies, although their landings can still use a little practice. Expectedly, Hiccup’s geographic journeys inevitably finds him encountering new people. One day, he and his girlfriend Astrid (America Fererra) meet the aggressive Eret (a charismatic Kit Harrington), who traps dragons for his boss, the ominous Drago Bludvist (a committed, gravely-voiced Djimon Hounsou) a renowned dragon hunter the young couple has never heard of, yet has ties to Stoick’s past. Hiccup also meets a mysterious woman named Valka (Cate Blanchett, exuding strength and grace), whose is something of a dragon whisperer, residing on an icy oasis that serves as a sanctuary for all manner of dragons, from a gigantic alpha to willful fledgling babies. Hiccup is cautious at first, but soon feels a special bond between himself and Valka, as they share a natural gift of dragon-human interaction.

 

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As the looming threat of Drago builds, a feral, wicked man who doesn’t believe in a peaceful coexistence between man and dragons and instead plans to harness every dragon in the realm for an all-powerful army, Hiccup and Valka team-up to stop the villain from enslaving all dragons. Hiccup is convinced he can convince Drago that there is a way to live peacefully amongst dragons, but Valka knows there’s no convincing such a madman. The two are joined by Stoick and his good friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson) as well as all of Hiccup and Astrid’s dragon-riding pals, Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Tuffnutt (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), knowing that Drago’s endgame is a threat to the harmonic existence they’ve created on Berk with the dragons. All of them however will be challenged by Drago’s powerful influence over both the humans and the dragons that serve him.

So, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” has a formidable villain, one that’s surprisingly quite interesting and it also has the amazing visuals, gorgeous animation and fantastic character design we expect, but what stands out most about this sequel are certain moments that deliver engaging character interaction and infectious heart-tugging scenes. Credit is due to writer/director Dean DeBlois (who co-wrote and co-directed the first movie) who deftly balances exuberant fun with touching sense of familial bonding as well as a dramatic sense of darkness.

There’s a wonderful scene early on, between Hiccup and Astrid that just focuses on them having a conversation, with Astrid doing a dead-on impersonation of her boyfriend. It’s rare that an animated feature (or any film, for that matter), pauses to focus on the effortless connection between two characters. But DeBlois seems to understand that amid all the colorful scenery and exiting action, what will connect viewers are the characters. Not once does any of this feel cheesy or forced, instead viewers are allowed to connect to these scenes on our own. The fact is, they’re done so well (like a specific family reunion later on), it was easy to find a smile on my face or chuckle out loud or even get a little misty at times.

Instead of the ‘more of the same’ approach to sequels (which, granted, works just fine sometimes), there is a palpable and welcome maturation here. Hiccup’s insecurities have lessened and he now conveys a confidence that has come from his relationship with Toothless and the fact that he singlehandedly made a difference in his community. Of course, Hiccup would shrug it off and deny it all.

 

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Like the first feature, DeBlois works with a stellar cast in “Dragon 2”, led by Baruchel, who is absolutely perfect as Hiccup. With a sequel always comes the introduction of new characters and the three brought to life by Harrington, Hounsou and Blanchett are quite wonderful. Harrington navigates an assured cockiness and an in-over-his-head attitude that is a nice addition, while Hounsou is given a haunted past underneath all the ghoulish howls of Drago. Out of the three though, the standout is Blanchett’s Valka, who is introduced in an intricately woven armor and a striking mask, seen as a curious albeit imposing presence, yet the more we learn about this matriarch, the more interesting she becomes. It helps that the animators match the look and mannerisms of the characters to suit each actor’s tone and voice, but the casting has to be just right, as it is here.

My favorite character though is still Toothless, the loyal Night Fury. Designed with mannerisms similar to an intuitive canine, he steals each scene he’s in. There are some cool new aspects to the character that I won’t go into, but they nevertheless make him all the more lovable and powerful. He’s as fierce as he is sweet – what’s not to like about that?

Speaking of talent, composer John Powell, another essential element from the last film, returns to provide a moving score that offers tender accompaniment to poignant scenes and fist-pumping energy to rousing sequences. Also returning as a visual consultant is veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who worked on “WALL-E”, “Rango” and Rise of the Guardians” as well), who’s involvement explains why the movie looks so amazing. Just like last time, you will find the best use of 3D here. It immerses the audience and accentuates the feeling of flight, while adding depth to the broadening environment.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” has all the thrills and fine characterization of the first movie, yet it evolves into something deeper. Sure, there’s a ton of enjoyment to take in here, but its vibrant heart focusing on devotion to family and friends is at the foundation of it all. It’s rare that a sequel feels this fresh and, well, profound. Once again, I find myself anticipating the return of these wonderful characters and seeing what new elements will be added to the second sequel.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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One Comment leave one →
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