How to Train Your Dragon was the definition of a pleasant surprise for me. Having no prior knowledge of the Cressida Cowell-penned source material, I went in only knowing that it was an animated movie about dragons that appeared to have a very silly title. What I discovered was a beautifully crafted story of tolerance and love set in a fully realized world of myth and history (with Scottish Vikings, for some reason). It was a glorious romp brimming with humor, imagination and heart. And, yes, I’m not ashamed to admit it got “dusty” in the theater at times.
Needless to say, the sequel has big shoes to fill. It’s to the creative team’s credit then that, rather than rehashing the themes of the first film all over again, they’ve chosen to instead expand the world out into new and interesting directions. In interviews, director Dean DeBlois has likened the film to The Empire Strikes Back in how he sees it progressing the story. Unfortunately, unlike that celebrated middle film in the Star Wars saga, the strain of such a venture occasional undermines the story and themes How to Train Your Dragon 2 is attempting to explore.
It’s been five years since the events of the last film. Everyone in the Viking village of Berk now lives in harmony with the dragons and even participates in fun-filled games. Though our protagonist, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), has grown since we last saw him, he remains as lovably goofy and sarcastic as ever. Yet, not all is well in paradise. Hiccup’s father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), wants to start grooming his son to succeed him as village chieftain. It’s a position Hiccup feels woefully ill-equipped for, despite encouraging words from now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). Our hero’s personal squabbles, however, are interrupted when he and Astrid stumble upon a group of men attempting to capture dragons. They are led by dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington), who claims to be on a mission from Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless conqueror hellbent on raising a dragon army and taking over the land.
Whereas the first film benefited from a simpler, concise narrative involving the classic boy-and-his-dog/cat/dragon arc, this latest entry bites off a little more story than it can chew. Not only are there plotlines involving Drago’s army and Hiccup’s reluctance to step into his father’s role, but the film also introduces us to Hiccup’s long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who was abducted by a dragon when Hiccup was a baby and, realizing they were benevolent creatures, decided to stay with them rather than vainly try to convince her (then) furiously anti-dragon husband otherwise.
Perhaps as a result of its multiple stories, the film’s pacing feels a bit inconsistent at times. While certain scenes are given ample time to breath—as when Stoick reunites with Valka—other portions, including parts of the conclusion, end up feeling a bit rushed. Most notably, there’s a point halfway through the film where the tone takes a dramatic left turn. To the filmmakers’ credit, the twist manages to fit organically into the story and not feel like whiplash. But, yes, parents be advised—things do get dark this time around.
Despite its various issues, the film has more than enough great moments to pick up the slack. From a technical standpoint, it’s a marvel to behold. As great as the flying sequences were in the original film, this entry effectively one-ups them. Also, the sheer detail of the animation is, at times, baffling. In an early scene of the film, Astrid playfully impersonates Hiccup’s (and, by extension, Jay Baruchel’s) tendency to flail his arms when speaking. It’s a tiny moment but one that really comes to life because of the exquisite animation work. Another notable moment comes with a close-up on a character’s muscle. The details of the skin are so vivid, you would swear they had momentarily switched to live-action.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 may not be Toy Story 2 (or The Empire Strikes Back, for that matter), but it’s a more than worthy successor to the first film. Even when it falls short of its lofty ambitions, you can’t help but appreciate how thoroughly it commits to achieving them.
Director: Dean DuBlois
Writers: Dean DeBlois; Cressida Cowell (book series)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson
Release Date: June 13, 2014