In a market where the turnaround for sequels is so quick, it feels like it’s been a long time since Hiccup and Toothless first arrived on the big screen. How To Train Your Dragon was the film that really made people sit up and pay attention to DreamWorks Animation again after a string of Shrek sequels and tacky celebrity-led reference-paloozas.
By our reckoning, that makes How To Train Your Dragon 2 the most anticipated animated feature of the year by some distance. Young fans will have had the animated series Dragons: Riders Of Berk to tide them over, but assuming that many of us who loved the first film might not have got around to the series, we’ve been eager to see where the story goes next.
At the start of the sequel, we find that around the same amount of time has elapsed in the story too. Five years on, the once-dragonophobic Viking folk of Berk have overcome their ignorance and fully integrated with the dragons, using them to imagine new sports, aid in their industry and crucially, explore the world.
The now-teenaged Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is dedicated to exploring, flying around atop Toothless and charting the world, much to the frustration of his conservative dad and tribe chief, Stoick (Gerard Butler).
In the course of his travels, he happens across dragon trappers who are working for the mysterious Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), an old adversary of Stoick’s who appears to have found a more brutal and sinister way of controlling dragons than Hiccup and the riders in Berk and aims to use this power, and the dragons, to take over the world.
Perhaps part of the reason that How To Train Your Dragon 2 is so good is because its lead character’s journey seems to reflect the creative decisions they’ve taken in making it. Hiccup is plunged into a crisis where history suggests that he should retaliate with bigger, darker and more violent measures, which seems like the mode to which many Hollywood sequels will default.
But writer-director Dean DeBlois has successfully soldiered against the almost tribal customs of such follow-ups, which tend to mistake bigger for better, and made sure to continue in the quest for tolerance and understanding that began in part one.
We should take some time to appreciate what a great protagonist Hiccup is for this kind of movie. His optimism, intelligence and empathy makes him a terrific role model for younger viewers, to say nothing about what his disability may represent. Following his accident at the end of the first film, his prosthetic foot is one of many gadgets he busts out this time and nobody treats him any differently because of his condition.
Even though the film seems to come down against Hiccup’s optimism when its villain is fully revealed, his sense of wonderment at the world is still present and correct. From a functional point of view, that’s because that only makes it all the more important to protect it from Drago, but in terms of actually watching it, it’s mostly just as delightful as the first film.
More importantly, the increased threat and violence feels earned. The arrival of the despicable Drago (who is towering in both design and Hounsou’s performance) reveals a bigger, badder world, but one in which our characters are further challenged because they’re not immediately tooling up to fight, but instead taking the higher road.
For those of you who avoid trailers, we’re deliberately not broaching a certain other new character, voiced by Cate Blanchett, whose significance has been ‘spoiled’ in the marketing. The filmmakers have said that they intended the sub-plot about her character, a mysterious hermit-like dragon whisperer, to remain a surprise. We won’t go into any more detail there, even if we feel that it’s not the only surprise the film has up its sleeve.
Although it fulfils certain tried-and-tested sequel storytelling tropes, with more than a little foreshadowing, DeBlois wisely holds back the biggest emotional punches for the optimal moments. Just because the rest of it is relatively lovely, when these punches do hit, they hit really hard. In the midst of all the wonderment, there are moments in here which are by turns tender, dramatic and genuinely upsetting. The overall effect is refreshingly unpredictable, but DeBlois never loses his grasp on his central theme in the process.
At the film’s centre, it’s got a warm heart and a fun sense of humour, particularly where Craig Ferguson’s Gobber and the Vikings’ casual endangerment of their sheep are concerned. Jonah Hill, TJ Miller, Christopher Mintz Plasse and Kristen Wiig all lend their voices as Hiccup’s teenaged peers once again and it’s Wiig who gets some of the funniest gags as her tomboyish Ruffnut fawns after a fit trapper voiced by Game Of Thrones‘ Kit Harington.
The visuals are wonderful once again, with inventive and eye-catching character design (especially with the dragons) and absorbing cinematography. You won’t be surprised to discover that Roger Deakins served as a visual consultant. Furthermore, John Powell expands upon his superb score from last time around with some new cues and some memorable leitmotifs.
In short, How To Train Your Dragon 2 has all of the elements that were great about the first film, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the carefree simplicity of its predecessor. The most obvious comparison point would be Kung Fu Panda 2, which lacked the structural supremacy of the original’s script and lost some of its mojo while exploring the wider world and escalating the stakes.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a more adept sequel, but part of what made its predecessor so endearing was that it didn’t have one eye on kickstarting a franchise. It might be a slightly churlish complaint, but it is about the only thing that keeps this from being as good as the original – that and the fact that Jay Baruchel is the only actor who doesn’t make any change in his vocal performance now that his character is five years older!
Dean DeBlois took on this sequel with the condition that he could build a trilogy and on the evidence of this one, he’ll make good with the third instalment, due out in 2016. He’s cited The Empire Strikes Back as his inspiration for this one and there are definite shades of that in his script. But How To Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t the dark centre of this trilogy that Empire was to Star Wars. Although its scope is larger and there’s more at stake, it continues to forge forward with empathy and an open mind.
Just as kids should learn from Hiccup, so studios should learn from this marvellous sequel.
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