"What you're searching for, Hiccup, isn't out there. It's in here."
2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, coupled with 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, was the film that more or less brought respectability to Dreamworks Animation. Prior to that, the studio was basically known for the Shrek franchise and a whole mess of interchangeable films where the characters all made the same face. HTTYD was a fantastic blend of character based humor and stunning animation, which more or less did away with the endless series of pop culture references that made Dreamworks a bit of an also-ran compared with the more sophisticated work of Pixar. When Kung Fu Panda got a sequel three years ago, it was, in my humble opinion, the perfect sequel in that it expanded the world, developed the characters, and introduced a formidable new threat. Everything seemed to be lining up for How To Train Your Dragon 2 to follow in that film’s footsteps, so could it do just that, or would it be a crushing disappointment? Read on to find out…
Picking up five years after the events of the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 finds the citizens of the small medieval island of Berk enjoying their newfound harmony with their former dragon enemies. The hero of the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is charting new territory on the back of his dragon Toothless, seeking to change the opinions of others across the land in regard to dragons. When he comes across a group of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harington), he discovers a nefarious plot by a human named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) to trap and control all of the dragons in the land.
After informing his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) of the plot, Stoick tells him of the legendary terror that Bludvist has reigned over, and encourages his son to stand down and focus his attention on learning to lead the people of Berk. Hiccup does not listen, and goes to attempt to reason with Bludvist, but soon finds himself face to face with another human amassing hordes of dragons. This human, however, has much more harmonious designs for the dragons, hoping to unite dragons and humans in peaceful harmony, a standing that Hiccup readily supports, which isn’t surprising considering that this human is his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett).
As far a ticking off boxes on a list of things that successful sequels do and do well, How To Train Your Dragon 2 most definitely ticks them all off. The characters, for the most part, grow and change, the stakes are raised, there’s just enough of the familiar to balance out the new, and our hero faces his greatest challenge of all, and rises to meet it. If I have any complaint at all, it’s that at times, particularly in the film’s somewhat bloated second act, feels as though it’s making sure all those boxes get checked off. It seems almost catty to ask certain things of a sequel and then begrudge the film when it rises to meet those challenges, but the sense of adventure and the organic feel of the first film are mostly gone here, sadly, replaced by an overwhelming urge to do something different without ever stopping to think if this particular set of circumstances is really the best they could have come up with.
My only other complaint about the film is regarding the villain. In a film that is as lily white as a world dreamed up by Joseph Smith himself, to make the only villain in the film a person of color, voiced by a person of color, does seem like an oddly out of touch thing to do. I acknowledge that this world was established to mirror the United Kingdom to some extent, and it would feel just as odd to attempt to shoehorn in characters of color just for the sake of having them in this world, but to use them in this way is just as offensive, if not more so.
Now, before I start to sound as though I didn’t enjoy the film, let me assure that I did enjoy it a great deal. Seeing it in IMAX 3D was worth the additional ticket price because the animation is second to none among films released in the past two or three years. The action is top notch, the pacing is good overall, particularly in the first and third acts, and the story earns its big, emotional reveals all too well. As I said earlier, it makes the most of every opportunity to have the characters grow and change, and deals with the notion of rising to meet your responsibilities incredibly well. It’s a solid story, told in a tremendously inventive visual way. In fact, it is pretty much the equal of Kung Fu Panda 2, which I certainly do not mean as a slight against this film. I think that both sequels take their characters and story on a journey forward, and honor the past without repeating it.
The voice work is also very good, and though Jay Baruchel still sounds like he’s fourteen years old, he manages to use such youthfulness to his advantage, particularly in light of his character’s journey. Butler does unusually strong work for an actor who seems to have come into his career on cruise control. Harington & Blanchett are worthy additions to the cast, as is Hounsou, despite the film’s decision to hamstring him with a horrendous stereotype of a character. The likes of Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are more or less wasted, as their characters don’t add much to the plot, but a bulked up role for Craig Ferguson’s character paid of handsomely thanks to Ferguson’s tremendous comic timing.
All in all, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is about as good a sequel as one could hope for from Dreamworks, or any major animation studio for that matter. Even Pixar’s sequels have been lackluster, with the Toy Story films being the exception that proves the rule. That they took the time to consider the characters and how they would have grown since the events of the first film is miracle enough in this day and age, but to couple it with eye-popping animation and great voice work makes this succeed far more often than it fails. It’s not all that it could have been, but it’s also so much better than it could have been, and sometimes, that is enough cause for celebration.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]