Sunday, 29 June 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

There were several things I wanted to do before watching How to Train Your Dragon 2. Rewatch the original. Watch the Riders of Berk spin-off, and the series that followed it. Perhaps even read the books, even though it’s clear that the films are going to take little or no further inspiration from them. I didn’t actually get around to doing any of that – but I have no regrets about going to tonight’s preview screening of the film, because How to Train Your Dragon 2 is probably my favourite animated film of the decade, above its predecessor, and certainly my favourite animated sequel of all, including such fare as Toy Story 3 and Puss in Boots. I regard those highly, but this film captivated and delighted me. If the first film was a pleasant surprise based on low expectations, this one was a pleasant surprise based on high expectations, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

I was a little worried when it was announced that Chris Sanders wasn’t directing this film, working instead on The Croods, which managed to also be better than expected yet doesn’t resonate all that deeply. But his Lilo & Stitch co-director Dean DeBlois stayed on from the first film, and showed that perhaps he was the real rock of their successes. DeBlois has said that, along with the human-animal bond of Totoro, one of his main inspirations here was The Empire Strikes Back, something which many major reviews have picked up on – just as that film took the Star Wars premise and made everything bigger and more serious, so does How to Train Your Dragon 2. Usually this is the territory of anime, to start from the rather silly and charming premise and turn it into something big, dark and epic, but DeBlois has pulled it off spectacularly.

Five years after the original film, the kids have grown up and Viking society has changed. Everyone is a dragon-rider now, more or less, and the kids are now teens and hone their skills through competitive games. Hiccup, now 20, has lost the goofy, cute look and become quite handsome – if painfully skinny – and loves to explore the wider world with Toothless. His father wants him to become the chief of Berk, however, which would curtail his freedom, so he is looking for an escape.

Of course, the exploration leads to some conveniently-timed meetings. First Hiccup meets some dragon-trappers, led by Eret, voiced by the ubiquitous Kit Harington. His character is initially an antagonist, but by first being cut down a peg or two and made the butt of some pretty funny jokes, and then redeeming himself with some rescues, actually becomes not only sympathetic but likeable, which I was quite surprised by. After them, Hiccup meets – slight spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer – his mother, who is living amongst the dragons, including a vast old ‘Alpha’ with impressive ice powers. Together, they have to face Drago Bludvist, the enslaver of dragons, who has caught wind of others riding dragons, as well as the alpha, and moves against them. Drago, voiced by Djimon Hounsou, is a little problematic for being an evil foreigner character, but pretty awesome in battle and in his boasts. Gerard Butler as Hiccup’s dad Stoick and Cate Blanchett as his mother Valka do a wonderful job, especially in a little naturalistic musical moment with lyrics, bizarrely, by Shane Macgowan of the Pogues, who presumably can be relied upon for something that sounds authentically Celtic-y.

The film does a lot, but it does it well. It has the classic story of the hero resisting responsibility but ultimately having to take it. It has the best depiction of enduring love I’ve ever seen in animation. It has a subtle depiction of the mixed feelings of a son whose mother wasn’t there when he was growing up. It has genuinely funny humour, be it the amusing over-enthusiastic flirting of several of the teens, poor long-suffering Gobber or the dragons getting up to Pets do the Funniest Things antics in the backgrounds. It has an incredibly sad scene, just skirting looking insincerely inserted for some easy emotion-jerking, with some lovely eulogies. It has triumph with fireworks and a lovely ‘standing together’ moment. And it has goddamn huge dragons 
fighting like two Final Fantasy VII Weapons going at it. Marvellous!

Also, this is the first time I’ve seen a film in a DBox seat and felt it added something. Well, my only other experience has been with The Hobbit where it largely just tilted annoyingly to follow a sweeping camera, which didn’t work. An animation that frequently centres on flight, however? Ideal. By no means essential, but a nice little enhancement.

I’m very pleased there’s another sequel coming. This is a great world that’s being built, and How to Train Your Dragon has after all transformed Dreamworks into  studio that isn’t afraid of being serious and epic with its animations – even if Rise of the Guardians is really the only other film in this mode just yet. I’ll definitely be going to see how the story continues, and very probably will be buying the trilogy on Blu-Ray. 


  1. Late to this one since I was busy with Anime Expo the past week+. I had your review here open in my tabs for when I got back XD

    But yeah, I totally agree with you that HTTYD 2 was fantastic. It's funny that, like you, before it came out I wanted to watch the Dragons TV series (I didn't need to rewatch the original movie since I've already seen it many times). I finally did get the motivation to track down the 40 Dreamworks Dragons TV episodes, and I'm happy to say that I thought they were really good. They stayed true to the feel of the original film, developed the characters and world more, kept good continuity between the episodes, and most importantly, didn't insult my intelligence and didn't make me feel like I was just watching a half-assed kiddy cartoon made to cash in on a popular movie. But watching all the episodes beforehand did make me a tad disappointed that little continuity from the TV series was brought into the sequel. But I can understand why as most people haven't seen the TV series and would get confused.

    But anyway, as you said, HTTYD 2 had so many good things. I loved the banter between Hiccup and Astrid in the beginning, and of course, all the interactions between Toothless and Hiccup. It's scenes like these that I love - they don't technically add anything to the plot but they're there to make the characters seem real and allow us to see their different emotions and relationships, so they don't come off as just "pieces" of a plot but as believable personalities we can relate to. I was also pleasantly surprised at the romantic scenes between Stoick and Valka; they made me think to myself, "This movie isn't just for little boys, it's for kids and adults. And that's great!" I also love all the unique designs of the different dragons (something the TV series depicts well too) and how realistically animal-like they are. I guess my only complaint about the movie is that the villain was a little weak (I really wanted to know how the heck he learned to control that giant ass dragon! Does all it take is swinging something around your head and yelling real loud?)

    HTTYD 2 has definitely found a place among my top 20 animated movies now (not sure where, but somewhere!) I cried twice (when Stoick dies and when Hiccup tries to get Toothless to recognize him near the end) and I think the only other animated movie that's made me do that is Kung Fu Panda 2 XD I can't wait for the third movie and the next TV series.

    1. Thanks for this! And I hope you had an awesome Expo.

      It's rocketed into my top 10 - I don't hesitate to go that far. I definitely feel it's Dreamworks' crowning achievement. And yeah, the animal characteristics they give the dragons, especially Toothless, is magical.

      I think the idea must have been that at some point, Drago must have been able to completely subjugate that huge dragon, which made him impressive. You're right that it would've been nice to see that, though.

      But yes, this definitely had the sophistication to appeal to adults. I hope it reaches classic status and gets the audience it deserves!