Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review - How to Train Your Dragon 2

It's usually hard to get excited about the film franchises of DreamWorks Animation. In order to cling to the pop culture zeitgeist on which so many of them depend, the studio churns out sequels and spinoffs with a rapidity and middling quality that might be better suited to television! One could therefore be forgiven for being pessimistic on the prospects of a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, a critically acclaimed box office hit that spun the quaint morality tale of how an oddball viking named Hiccup (Jay Burachel) managed to capture and bond with the most unlikely of pets: a wild dragon he named Toothless.

I quite enjoyed that film when it was released back in 2010, and my affection for it has only grown since then. Obviously, my hopes weren't too high for its inevitable follow-up, but this is one sequel for which DreamWorks deserved the benefit of the doubt. How to Train Your Dragon 2 truly delivers, and with fiery confidence to boot. Not only is it the studio's most thrilling adventure to date, but also its most thematically robust and elegantly handled as well.
The story picks up five years after the events of the first Dragon, in which time the once dragon-fearing highland village of Berk has become a more harmonious place where Vikings and dragons happily coexist. Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is intent on preparing his son to eventually succeed him as clan chieftain, but the soul-searching Hiccup naturally has his doubts. He'd rather devote his time to flying around on Toothless, mapping out new lands, outfitted with a tricked-out steampunk wing-suit that allows him to literally glide alongside his winged companion.

On one such expedition, he and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) stumble upon a ring of dragon poachers and their comically inept commander Eret (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington). Eret has been charged with trapping enough dragons to comprise an unstoppable animal army for a mysterious megalomaniac known as Drago Bludvist (the decidedly uncomical Djimon Hounsou).

Bludvist – who is all the more fearsome for his murky motivations and ambiguous backstory – doesn't share the Berkians' enlightened view that dragons are magnificent creatures that deserve to be treated with love and respect. Apparently, he doesn't even feel that way about people, as his globe-conquering aspirations surely attest. C'mon, Drago. Why you gotta be such a drag......o?

This bold foray into darker territory and expanded scope does sacrifice the lyrical simplicity that made the first film such a charmer, but it accomplishes exactly what a sequel is supposed to: It moves the story and characters forward rather than reverting them back the comfort zone of the status quo. Credit writer-director Dean DeBlois (solo-gliding this time without his original Dragon co-director Chris Sanders) for recognizing that his characters have to evolve and grow if we're to keep caring about them across multiple films.

This involves facing our heroes with more daunting challenges, higher dramatic stakes, and more gut-wrenching consequences – one particularly intense plot development comes to mind – that shape them into different people (or dragons) than they were at the start. It also involves exploring their heretofore unspoken histories, which we access here in the form of another new character, Hiccup's long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).
Turns out Valka has been secretly living amongst the dragons all this time, caring for them and protecting them from Bludvist's hunters. She's at once strong but gentle, wise but a bit adorably awkward (you'd be too without human contact for twenty years!), and helps to open Hiccup's eyes to his past and the identity he's struggling to find. It's a shame that DeBlois' otherwise fine script doesn't give her much to do following her stellar introduction.

But shortcomings such as that reveal themselves only as afterthoughts to what is ultimately a very well told story. DeBlois performs a dizzying balancing act (kinda like dancing on a dragon's wings) by maintaining a brisk pace and a tricky semi-serious tone throughout a narratively busy screenplay. All the while he manages to gracefully enmesh tactful levity and numerous thematic undertones such as identity, leadership, war & peace, the ethical treatment of animals, and (especially) maturation.

Maturation, in particular, is a compelling motif that can be read into not only the story, but into the filmmaking itself! Just as Hiccup and Toothless mature from juvenility to adulthood in this saga, so too has every aspect of the production evolved in some way from the original. Much of the same crew have returned to lend their considerable artistic talents to the sequel's sensational aesthetic, and nearly all of them have upped their game (no lean feat, given how stunning the first film was):

John Powell adapts and blends his Celtic-inspired themes from the first Dragon with soaring new melodies to yield another rich score; The deft touch of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, back again as visual consultant, can be seen in the lighting and spatial composition of every frame; And Randy Thom's dragon voice designs have grown even more varied in their surprising emotional breadth.
This is to say nothing of the animation itself, which was virtually unimprovable in the first film but certainly loses no ground here, with the body language of both dragons and humans communicating far more than the spoken dialogue ever could.

One can only hope that DreamWorks might take its cues from this sort of film more often in the future, because this is how sequels ought to be done: Not by delivering more of the same, like regurgitated fish from a dragon's gullet, but by confidently forging ahead towards growth and change.

***1/2 out of ****

2 comments:

  1. 'How To Train Your Dragon' is actually my favorite movie, and a lot of that was due to said lyrical simplicity. I actually really hated the sequel because it stretched the boundaries and tried to make everything 'bigger' to the point where I didn't find myself caring about any of the characters. I see the film as just glorified fan fiction, but your review did at least open my eyes as to why others cherish it so much. But I will say that the people who want this to be in the Best Picture conversation are out of their minds.

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  2. I really enjoyed the first film, and am excited to see the second one (I haven't yet). With this and the equally enjoyable LEGO Movie this year, and the hotly anticipated titles of The Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6 (they could completely blow up in our face, mind you), who would've thought the year without Pixar would be one of the strongest years for animation ever.

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