Growing Up with Dragons

The Cast and Crew of How to Train Your Dragon 2 Talk About Life in the Franchise

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It’s been five years since we were introduced to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Astrid (America Ferrera), and the rest of the dragon-friendly Viking community of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon. The second installment brings us back to these fire-breathing creatures who are much more lovable in this dragon world than that of The Hobbit. Things are the same. Berk-ians are living in harmony with them, everyone seems happy, and Hiccup is still developing his flying style with his trustworthy Toothless.

While sitting at a table with Baruchel, Ferrera, producer Bonnie Arnold and director Dean DeBlois, you feel a solid sense of camaraderie and family that is reflected in the beginning moments of How to Train Your Dragon 2—it’s something you don’t usually feel in animated features. Perhaps it’s because they have all been living with these characters well after they first wrapped.

“We’ve now, for seven consecutive years, been living with these characters, and for me the TV series was such an opportunity to get to explore different aspects of the character,” Ferrera says. “It’s just a playground to get to explore other aspects, and then, coming back to the movie—all of that exploration just sort of naturally played into the film.”

“I can’t imagine Hiccup and Astrid without Jay and America,” adds producer Bonnie Arnold. “They really bring a lot to it and not just Dean and I know this, but our whole crew really appreciates what they bring to it and they’re part of our family, honestly. We wouldn’t really want to go forward [with the new movie] without them.”

Director Dean DeBlois adds that this growth and in-depth exploration of character informs the growth of physical attributes in the lead characters. It gives dimension to something that would otherwise be flat cartoon characters.

“[With Hiccup,] we were looking at Jay as a physical model because he’s got this cool James Dean-like quality to him … but at the same time he’s got a gangly quality to him,” DeBlois says. “It’s so adorable, and we wanted to channel that into Hiccup so that he doesn’t suddenly become like a generic, strapping, heroic type. He still has a lot of his reliance on wit and a physical mismatch for the world of Berk where everybody’s 400 pounds, brawny. It helps actually going forward.”

“Yeah,” Baruchel says. “I lost a lot of weight for the part.”

Laughter ensues. Then the discussion of the characters’ physical feature take a different route.

“Bonnie forced us to increase Astrid’s bust line,” DeBlois says.

Baruchel’s eyes widen and he yells, “I knew it!”

“Yes!” declares Arnold. “She’s 20 years old … I mean, she doesn’t have to be necessarily buxom, but she’s got to have some. They’re not going to know she’s more grown up!”

“That’s just biology,” Ferrera agrees.

“I said the same thing about Hiccup’s whiskers,” Arnold says. “His whiskers are cute, and those were hard to do in computer animation.

“And then I get tits in the third one,” Baruchel adds. “That’s the name of the working title of the third one: Dragon 3: Tits.”

Joking aside, there is tons of growth for Hiccup and Astrid in How to Train Your Dragon 2. With growth, comes pain—and much as with great animated features like Lion King, Up and Frozen, the movie explores some darker parts of real life. Without spoiling anything, there is a point when things gets quite heavy for Hiccup. DeBlois was very cognizant of the darker storyline and handled it very carefully.

“There was some concern that we might push it until it breaks, but for me conceptually, I thought Hiccup and Toothless are the core relationship of the whole trilogy, and we start the second film with them being inseparable, bullet proof, symbiotic and the best of friends and the only way to really carry a story narratively is to introduce some conflict to that,” DeBlois says. “So to me the extreme would be to not only wrench them apart, but to turn them into enemies again, and we pursued that to the gutsiest extreme.”

In addition to dealing with heavy moments, the movie also introduces a new character voiced by Cate Blanchett: Hiccup’s estranged mother. In the first movie, her existence is vague. We don’t know if she is dead or if she was taken away. When we are introduced to her in the new film, we learn that she, like Hiccup, is some sort of dragon-whisperer, but on a whole different level. DeBlois likens her to Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall. Again, this was an opportunity to add to the growth of Hiccup and the story altogether.

“[We learn that] she has been living among dragons for 20 years, being cut off from humanity and almost becoming a dragon herself,” DeBlois says. “ She’s tuned to the way they live and learning their secrets—she actually represents in Hiccup’s restlessness and the other half of his soul.

After facing hard-hitting obstacles of friendship and being reacquainted with a reclusive, long-lost dragon-riding mother, Hiccup has plenty of growing pains in the sequel. In the end, How to Train Your Dragon 2 fits your classic “rite of passage” story. DeBlois points out that many of us have gone through what Hiccup goes through.

Following a rousing discussion of what dream dragon cameos they would like to be in the already-in-production third installment of the franchise (Baruchel wants Falkor from Neverending Story while DeBlois opted for Vermithrax from Dragonslayer), DeBlois waxes poetic on dragons being “really hot right now.”

“It seems kind of strange, but we’ve been playing in this round for a while, but when we entered it, dragons were pretty stale,” DeBlois says. “I think Eragon kind of put a nail in that coffin for a while, so we saw it as a bit of a handicap rather than a real blessing. We went back to the idea that I had as a kid—the wish fulfillment of having a your own dragon and being able to fly it and have it feel like a real animal instead of some sort of weird talking creature.”

“If they’re hot, we made them hot,” Arnold smiles.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens in theaters on June 13.

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