[Review] - How to Train Your Dragon 2

Courtesy of Dreamworks Animation
It's been four years since How To Train Your Dragon impressed audiences beyond reason, and Dreamworks enough to invest in another potential franchise. However, it failed to meet the usual pattern for animated sequels, churning them out year after year, until the franchise is beaten and splintered into pieces, a fragment of it's former self. Writer/director Dean DeBlois, displaying unusual ownership over the property, took the time to get things right. While the studio kept the memory of the franchise alive in a TV series and a couple direct to video shorts, the film was held back until they had something that could match the emotional journey of the first.

Have they succeeded? Well, like every sequel, everything here is bigger than the first time around. Bigger, and slightly more complex. And like so, so many sequels, it buckles under the weight of wanting and trying to do more. Unlike other sequels, it doesn't buckle much. Not so much to distract that, at it's core, it remains a refreshingly earnest story, and isn't afraid to shift the narrative in entirely new directions. Like Hiccup, the franchise learns to be a new kind of brave with every offering, even if that means falling off the back of their dragon from time to time.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that are as beautiful as the day they lost you.

First things first: the film looks gorgeous. Dreamworks built the film using a new animation platform, and the upgrade shows. The scenery looks photo-realistic, and the fluid effects - used to generate fire, water, and smoke - are easily some of the best CG ever generated for a film, be it animation or live action. The rest of the film is simply an upgrade from the style established in the first. The dragons, old and new, are all still eccentrically designed, they just have more texture. That being said, there is way too much falling in this film. I get that it's an aerial adventure, and they needed something to make the 3D conversion purposeful, but after the first fifteen minutes, I'd had enough. At a certain point, it stops being both tension building and awe inspiring, and just eats minutes.

The film maintains the emotional core that drove the original film. Picking up five years later, not that much has changed. The situation may have evolved, but the people inhabiting Berk are the same as ever. Hiccup is far from the wobble-legged fawn he once was, but being racked with uncertainty is still his chief personality trait. Stoick is still bull headed and narrow-visioned, and Gobber is still fiercely loyal and very odd. The film wisely eases the audience back into the world of Berk before completely upturning it.

And like before, the voice cast is doing some of their best work. Jay Baruchel has owed the character of Hiccup since day one, and continues to imbue him with just the right combination of insolence, curiosity and uncertainty. In fact, the only weakness in the voice cast this time around is new-comer Cate Blanchett, if only because it's never entirely clear what kind of accent she's going for. It's not to say she doesn't turn in a fine performance. Far from it; Val is an immediate and fine addition to the cast. Her back story becomes a slight bit expositiony at times as she fills in the gaps (a weakness the film shares all over), but she makes an instant impression, and you feel nothing but sympathy for the character.

Where the film trips up is in it's own complexity. Part of what made the original so good was the simplicity. It was essentially a boy and his dog story, where at the end the dog defends the boy from a bear. Except, instead of all that, it was dragons. The second film strives to be more ambitious, and perhaps extends itself too far. There are two primary plots here: one, while struggling to discover his path in Berk, Hiccup uncovers some startling truths about his mother. And second, a crazy warlord with a dragon army is making moves towards the now peaceful Berk. Amongst all of this, there are a tangle of subplots that never really go anywhere or add anything to the major piece. In fact, they distract, which the competing A plots also do to one another.

It seems at times that this film could have been both parts two and three of the franchise, with Hiccups and his family drama taking one film, while introducing the larger political issues, and the third film could have covered dragon wars and Hiccup's ascension. Instead, they are paired together, and again not unsuccessfully. But, they could have been blended more organically. As presented, they play out in segmentation. I see no reason why, for the sake of narrative flow and character motivation, the dark pasts involving Hiccup's mother and the first assault by the warlord Drago couldn't have been connected.

As it stands though, the film is very appealing. The secondary characters, including new comer Kit Harrington, could have been cut, as they provide nothing but the intention of comedic relief, something that the primary cast already provide in spades (and yes, I'm going to include Astrid in that, who aside from a hilarious sequence with Hiccup involving spot on Butler and Baruchel impressions, adds nothing to the film). But the emotional, character drive stuff is there, and it's pretty damned weighted for a film being marketed to ten year olds. The film isn't afraid to buck the status quo in favour of actual character development and setting up a new paradigm with which to feed more potential sequels. I'll admit, I was surprised by how they elected to end things. Not that it wasn't unexpected, but by Dreamworks standards, it seemed more like how the franchise would end, not how it would end chapter two. It's a bold move, and one I applaud DeBlois for making, and sticking with.

The trick now will be maintaining this level through #3.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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