'How to Train Your Dragon 2'
‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ might not have the advantage of being a pleasant surprise like the original film, but it recaptures almost all of the charms of its predecessor with ease. The action is intense, the animation beautiful, the story heartwarming, and the central dragon absolutely adorable. If it’s not quite as impressive as the first flick, that’s probably a result of that movie being so good rather than this one being particularly flawed.
When ‘How to Train Your Dragon‘ hit screens four years ago, it caught audiences completely off guard. Here was a CGI fantasy film with genuinely thrilling action scenes, a creature mascot that wasn’t lazily anthropomorphized, and an interesting story to contain it all. But the biggest surprise? The movie came from DreamWorks Animation, which had previously been best known for sucking all of the joy out of ‘Shrek’ through crappy sequels. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ remains the crown jewel in the company’s output four years later, which is why audiences had no choice but to approach the inevitable sequel with trepidation. It seemed impossible to properly follow up such a self-contained story, and DreamWorks’ track record with sequels is not exactly spotless. Thankfully, as it turns out, there was no need to fear. This sequel might not top the wonderful original, but it at least comes damn close to matching it.
In case you’ve forgotten, the last movie concluded with peace between the humans and dragons in the fantasy Viking land of Berk. After Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) trained his dragon Toothless, all of his friends and family started riding their own dragons, and it seemed as though there would be a happily ever after. Of course, the need for a sequel guaranteed that couldn’t possibly continue, and so a new villain emerges in the dreadlocked Drago (Djimon Hounsou), an impossibly evil beast of a man who has trained his own army of dragons to wipe out the rest of humanity.
The good news is that Hiccup quickly discovers Drago’s plot. The even better news is that he also discovers his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett), who has been living amongst dragons and has an army of her own. So Hiccup is able to reunite his mother and father (Gerard Butler) along with a massive lineup of dragon all-stars to take out Drago. All seems well until Drago unleashes his secret weapon, an absolutely massive alpha dragon that can control all other flying serpents in his presence. Whoo-boy, things are going to get messy.
This may not be the most original premise for a sequel. In fact, it’s one of the most common: Introduce a new villain who erases all of the good from the previous movie, building to an even bigger battle against evil – lather, rise, repeat. Not only that, Drago isn’t a particularly great villain. He’s more of a collection of snarls and postures than a character.
And yet, the film works because the core of the original movie remains intact. The world, character design and animation are easily the best that DreamWorks has ever delivered. Berk feels lived-in, the dragons have real character, and the action scenes deliver genuine thrills (especially in 3D, since director Dean DeBlois designed his set-pieces to take advantage of the format rather than merely slapping the extra dimension on as a profit-enhancing afterthought). The sheer scale and spectacle of the movie is extraordinary, as is the central relationship between Baruchel’s Hiccup and his pet dragon Toothless. That fire-breathing charmer stands as one of the most endearing kiddie flick creatures of the last decade, playing like a collection of all the favorite behaviors of every cat or dog you’ve ever owned with some butt-kicking dragon powers to boot. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless continues to be moving and relatable without Toothless ever feeling like an anthropomorphic Disney animal. He’s a dragon all right, just a sweetheart of one.
The other key component to this sequel is the relationship between Hiccup, his father and their recently discovered mother. This storyline proves to be equally moving (thanks in no small part to Blanchett’s performance) and devoid of the usual clichés.
‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ has plenty of heart and action to spare, easily equaling its predecessor in that regard. What it lacks (aside from the impossible to recapture sense of surprise) is the humor of the colorful human world. The memorable side characters voiced by the likes of Craig Ferguson and Jonah Hill all return, but feel crammed into the plot and never have much to do. Clearly, subplots involving those characters have been dropped for the sake of brevity, and the laughs they’d bring are missed in this sequel. Toss in the occasionally overreaching narrative that suffers from sequelitis and you’ve got a movie that can’t quite live up to the original. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch the filmmakers try. This is still wondrous family popcorn entertainment, just also a reminder of how truly special the last go-round with these trainable dragons was.