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.