Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review: Bigger, Bolder, and (Possibly) Even Better

By Andrew Braid

Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Kit Harington, Djimon Hounsou, Jonah Hill, Christopher-Mintz Plasse, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller
Release Date: June 13, 2014
Presented in 2D and 3D

I've made it absolutely no secret to anyone that I loved How to Train Your Dragon. Hell, "loved" definitely doesn't feel like a strong enough word- think "adored" or "obsessed with" (that's two words, but still). Despite its simple, well-worn "boy and his _____" tale (in this case about a dragon rather than a dog, alien or giant robot), How to Train Your Dragon dazzled audiences with its spectacular 3D action and captured their hearts with its memorable characters and touching emotional story. This was more than just some kidpic timekiller to keep the young 'uns at bay for an hour and a half- it was genuine movie magic. 
So unlike the original film that no one expected much of anything from at the time when it was released four years ago, How to Train Your Dragon 2 faces the burden of having to clear a much higher bar with audiences. I more than anyone wouldn't let just any pretty-looking follow-up get by with a free pass. The first film was truly something special, and a real sequel would have to follow suit, especially when it's planned to be the middle chapter of a trilogy (the third film is set to open in June 2016). Thankfully How to Train Your Dragon 2 is anything but a play-it-safe rehash or a failed attempt to recapture the glory of its predecessor. 
Rest easy, fans of the first film: lightning can be caught in a bottle twice, and Dragon 2 proves it.

Hiccup and Toothless encounter the fearsome Dragon Rider...

Set five years after the events of the first film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 finds the island village of Berk as it's become a paradise of harmony between vikings and dragons. But while his friends race dragons in quidditch-esque games back home (substituting sheep for quaffles), 20-year old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is flying through the clouds with his dragon (and best friend) Toothless, exploring and mapping out uncharted lands. While his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants him to assume his role as chief of the village, Hiccup feels uncertain and unwilling to take on such responsibilities despite his insistence or the encouragement of his warrior girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). Soon though Hiccup finds himself ambushed by a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Hiccup's long-thought dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). Having lived among the dragons in a hidden sanctuary, Valka makes up for a lot of lost time with her grown-up son, as it turns out that Hiccup shares a lot more in common with her than his stubborn-yet loving viking father. Big trouble brews however in the approach of a massive army led by dragon-conquering warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), whose belief in subjugation over harmony with dragons threatens the peace that Hiccup has worked so hard for.

Turns out Hiccup's family has a lot of catching up to do...

From the moment we're aware that 5 years have passed and our cast of viking teens is all grown up, How to Train Your Dragon 2 lets us know that this isn't your ordinary "just another fun adventure" kind of sequel. While it carries over and even enhances many of the first film's charms, it firmly establishes that this is a true follow-up and continuation of the original's story, plotting a very different course in the process. In contrast to the first film's tale about overcoming prejudice and the bond between a boy and his pet friend, the second film is namely a coming-of-age tale for Hiccup, as he makes those precarious final steps towards full-fledged adulthood. Revelations unfold through Hiccup's reunion with the mother he never really knew, as he comes to realize just how much his parents have influenced him and who he is. He sees what he's inherited from both his father and his mother, yet strives to show what makes him unique- namely his sense of optimism and conviction that people are capable of change. This proves a double-edged sword for intelligent young Hiccup: on one hand he has a valid point that he has and can change people's minds (like he did with his father and the rest of Berk in the first film). On the other hand though it's a conviction that unfortunately proves somewhat naive- men like Drago Bludvist will simply refuse to change their minds no matter how well Hiccup debates with them, and as a result sometimes war and conflict are inevitable. Even more so than the first film actions can have serious consequences, and by the end of the film these consequences shape Hiccup into what kind of man he'll be.
Writer/Director Dean DeBlois (now flying solo after co-writing/directing the first film with Chris Sanders) has stated in several interviews that his primary inspiration for Dragon 2 was The Empire Strikes Back, and the influence is very much evident: this is a decidedly darker, deeper film than the original, one that takes its family-friendly PG rating about as far it can go. Gone is the simpler, more familiar and comfortably predictable narrative of the first film; here we get the rare case of an animated feature where one honestly isn't sure how everything is going to end up. The action is more intense, the stakes are higher, and Hiccup suffers much more than a lost leg this time around (including one plot turn in particular that's destined to be a tearjerker on par with The Lion King and The Iron Giant). However, don't be fooled into thinking that the series has lost its sense of humour- in fact, Dragon 2 is actually even funnier than the first film (much like Empire had sharper laughs than the original Star Wars). Whether it's playful dragon interactions or brow-raised side remarks from Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the film is filled with charming laughs throughout (with one running joke in particular that's just too good to spoil- all I'll say is it left the whole theatre in stitches). Fortunately the film keeps a precise balance in its tone, so its pieces of humour don't ever risk overshadowing or undermining any crucial emotional beats. The result is a film with perfectly-tuned pacing that's neither slow nor hurried, one that feels supremely assured and confident that it won't take a wrong step.

The returning cast of characters are both much very much like we remember them and significantly different, and the actors voicing them follow suit with their performances. Jay Baruchel's Hiccup is still his lovable good-natured self, but he also shows signs of the maturity preparing to break out as he struggles with finding his own sense of identity. His relationship with Astrid is loving and easygoing, clearly at the point where they know each other's tricks and mannerisms all too well (an early scene where he and Astrid recreate a talk with Hiccup's father proves particularly clever and comical). Local jock Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and nerdy Fishlegs (Christopher-Mintz Plasse) are much the same, but their hormonal urges have led them both to vie for the affections of fellow dragon rider Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), much to her disdain. Hiccup's father Stoick, once sworn enemy of dragons everywhere, has grown to love these amazing creatures, and couldn't be more proud of his son (that doesn't mean he's much better at listening to him though). Only peg-legged mentor Gobber seems to be about the same as always (though it amusingly turns out there's a few details we didn't know about him before). 
And then there's Hiccup's mother Valka, who proves a great character in her own right. A Diane Fossey for dragons, she knows all of their secrets, and has much she can pass down to her son. Blanchett's voice is a perfect fit, lending the character equal parts proud wisdom, quirky isolation and stern defiance. Two of the film's biggest standout scenes involve the reunion of Valka and Stoick, heartwarmingly beautiful yet with an edge of more mature adult romance not often seen in animated family fare (this also once again proves to be Gerard Butler's best work, proving what he can do when he gets to play more than just some thinly-characterized action hero). Also joining the cast this time around is Game of Thrones' Kit Harington as suave dragon trapper Eret ("Son of Eret") and Djimon Hounsou as the villainous Drago, a twisted and menacing dark side reflection of Hiccup's peaceful idealism. 

The ice-breathing Bewilderbeast was always great at playing "peekaboo"...

DreamWorks Animation has outdone itself with Dragon 2, bringing Hiccup's new story to life through arrestingly-beautiful animation that even puts the stunning first Dragon film to shame. Everything is immensely detailed: every environment brimming with atmosphere, every character distinctly realized and astoundingly expressive in ways both subtle and exaggerated. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins' returns as a visual consultant for the film, and his influence is immediately felt in the wondrously cinematic look of the film, whether it's the way sunlight glistens on a character's hair or as dragon fire sets the stage in an ominous cave. Also returning after great success with the first film is composer John Powell, whose orchestral score once again proves an amazing listen even when separated from the movie it so perfectly synchs with. Whether the scene is sweeping, romantic, tragic or lighthearted, Powell captures every emotion note for note with deft skill. 
The first film was also famous for its exhilarating use of 3D, and Dragon 2 follows suit with aplomb. More "pop-out" moments are fewer and more subdued this time around, in favour of creating a sense of immense depth in the film's wondrous skies and locales. Every scene feels like you're being sucked into the fantastic animated world in front of you, and every trip on the back of a dragon gives a sensation of soaring right along with the characters. It honestly goes without saying that if you can see the film in 3D, then you should absolutely make it a priority to do so.

The flying sequences that made the first one such a huge hit are back with a vengeance here, and the 3D makes them a must-see experience.

There's not many other ways I can put it: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is absolutely spectacular. Not only is it among the most elite examples of how to make a truly great sequel, but it proves to be a thrilling and hugely emotional adventure movie in its own right. It's equal parts awe-inspiring, hilarious and deeply resonant, and is an undisputed frontrunner for best movie of the summer (and who knows, possibly the whole year). It's the kind of film that doesn't just demand the big screen experience, but actually deserves it too (the Transformers movies can demand the big screen experience all they want, that doesn't mean they actually deserve it on any non-visual level). Just like its adored predecessor, it's the kind of film that can be loved and enjoyed by anyone, young or old, bound to dazzle any viewer looking to see what true movie magic looks like.
Then again, there's soooo many other great movies you can take the kids to this summer instead...

Skeptical Toothless is skeptical about that last line...

Final Score: 10 / 10

+ A darker, richer and bolder story that expands on the first film in wonderful, emotional, and even surprising ways
+ The action and flying sequences seriously step up their game while retaining their thrilling sense of adventure and wonder
+ Even funnier than the first film, yet balanced out expertly so the humour never undermines or overshadows the dramatic story beats
+ The astoundingly beautiful animation is matched by spectacular 3D, demanding to be seen on the big screen
+ Fantastic performances from the entire voice cast, with Baruchel, Blanchett and Butler proving particular standouts
+ John Powell's score is just as amazing as his Oscar-nominated work on the first film

- We'll have to wait 2 more years for the third movie...