Five years after convincing his fellow Vikings of the island of Berk that the dragons they once battled are actually intelligent, peaceful animals, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) has grown into an outstanding young man, and is no longer an embarrassment to his father, Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), the ruler of Berk. Thanks to Hiccup (and his dragon, Toothless), everything is peaceful, and he must now face the possibility of leadership. His father wants him to be chief someday. Enter the caped, dreadlocked hunter Drago Bludvist (voice of Djimon Hounsou) – he poses a big threat to the dragons; basically, he amasses a nefarious dragon army for his world-conquering war. Hiccup also finds someone he never thought he would ever come across.
This is a PG-rated animated film, but an argument can be made that this movie is not really for kids. From a purely visual standpoint, it is colorful and kids may appreciate it the same way they would a beautiful illustration. But, there are a lot of mature aspects to this story. Drago, in particular, with his deep, gravely voice is a very fierce and intimidating presence. And he gets his war. Characters die. Personalities of dragons shift. One dragon falls under a spell and is controlled into doing a horrible thing. I noticed one kid at the showing I went to (purposely chose the 8:30 p.m. show hoping that there wouldn’t be any kids there) couldn’t stay seated – maybe he was scared? Or bored? But, then again, being traumatized as children formed us as grown-ups; it gave us the opportunity to understand loss. I didn’t want to see Luke Skywalker lose his hand, nor did I want to see Bambi’s mother die. ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ doesn’t shy away from the peril and moments of tragedy that an adventure story should have. I applaud the film for being daring (a word I use very infrequently for family-friendly entertainments because they are often trapped by the genre) and for respecting what kids (or at least more grown-up kids) are capable of dealing with.
I saw ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ in 2-D. I had seen the original film in 3-D and recall the sense of awe and wonderment from those magnificent flying sequences. I practically felt the slap of the wind and water. What I believe is missing in this sequel is that sense of awe. It could be because the canvas is more crowded this time around (most sequels exercise their more-is-more belief), but more than likely, it could be because I didn’t see the sequel in 3-D. I hate 3-D. That is why I went to the 2-D showing. But, there are exceptions and I had forgotten just how immersive (and non-gimmicky) the 3-D experience was for the original film. All I can say is: it might be worth the upcharge (though I don’t know for sure).
But, even in 2-D, the film is gorgeous to look at. Roger Deakins, my favorite cinematographer working today, served as visual consultant to both ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ movies and it shows – the lighting and texture of the film are gorgeous. There is a lot to look at. For instance, consider Toothless as a creation – a glossy, leathery dragon of salamander length with panther-like eyes. He wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Star Wars’ film or in ‘Avatar’. Writer-director Dean DeBlois frolics in the grandiosity of it all.
Apart from appreciating the more mature storytelling aspects, I also appreciated the film as a sequel. Last week, I reviewed ’22 Jump Street’ – this was a sequel that surpassed the original by satirizing and deconstructing Hollywood’s favorite product – the blockbuster sequel. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is a sequel that is as effective as the first one. Sure, I wasn’t marveling at the scenes of flight this time around, but I was more swept up by the story – the characters progress and there are bold choices on the part of the filmmaker with plot developments that impact the continuations of this franchise. I haven’t read Cressida Cowell’s books, so I don’t know where this broader story is headed.
I really like these characters, and the voice cast is terrific. There is a great new character that I won’t reveal anything about even if the theatrical trailer gives the surprise away. You wouldn’t think Jay Baruchel would make a good voice actor, especially as the hero of an animated film, but it absolutely works – he can play a tough character more convincingly as a voice actor (though he was rough in ‘Goon’) but here, in all of his neurotic glory, he brings sweetness and warmth to Hiccup. Mr. Baruchel went to the same high school in Ottawa as William Shatner (also worked extensively as a voice actor), and Christopher Plummer (recognizably distinct rich smooth voice); I wonder what the drama program at this school must be like. Aside from Mr. Baurchel, other Judd Apatow crewmembers include Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig.
If there is a weakness in the picture, it’s in the creation of the villain as a fully fleshed out character. Drago’s methods don’t entirely make sense; like the classic James Bond villains, he just seems hell-bent on world domination, but he lacks the strategic forward-minded thinking of say an Auric Goldfinger. Unlike the Bond films, however, the strength of this feature doesn’t rest on the shoulder of its villain, and the characters we are supposed to care about evolve wonderfully.
Toothless it is not. ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is better than the last few Pixar movies (though the studio hasn’t released a great animated feature since ‘Toy Story 3’). It has the emotional, humorous, exciting sweep you hope for in a summer movie. But it also functions on a smaller scale and works as an effective coming-of-age story. I’d say it is on par with its predecessor; so, if you liked the first movie, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like first one, there’s no talking to you. QED.