Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 Raises the Bar for Animated Sequels

The action-packed sequel delivers more of the charming, compelling story that made the original so popular.
 by Grant Andrews

The original How to Train Your Dragon, released in 2010, had audiences and critics alike spellbound, and the film was nominated for two Oscars and earned over $500 million worldwide. While there didn’t seem to be any obvious need for a sequel, the film’s success demanded it and two follow-ups were quickly ordered. While many sequels to beloved animated films are merely cash-grabs aimed at young audiences who don’t really demand too much, and are creatively dialled-down into perfunctory, uninspired retreads of the originals (see: Cars 2, and nearly every direct-to-video Disney movie), there are the rare exceptions that are just as good as the originals, and a few that build upon the original so artfully that they might even be considered better, and you are genuinely enchanted and can’t wait to see where they go next (the Toy Story sequels come to mind). How to Train Your Dragon 2 falls into the latter camp, and takes the franchise to a new level of creativity with a story that is fresh and offers even more heart and intrigue than the first instalment.

The story picks up five years after the events of the original, seeing the residents of the Viking village Berk now living in harmony with dragons instead of fighting them off. Our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) maps the surrounding lands and villages with his faithful dragon Toothless, so named for his retractable teeth. Hiccup’s father, the current chief of Berk named Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler), appoints Hiccup as his successor as has come of age, but Hiccup is uncertain if the chiefdom is right for him. During his travels, Hiccup learns about a dragon hunter named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who terrorises villages and is building a dragon army. Hiccup then journeys to try and reason with Drago, believing that he can convince him that dragons are allies and not creatures to be feared or controlled.

The true magic of the film is in the story of family which develops when Hiccup eventually finds his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchette), who was taken by a dragon when Hiccup was a baby and has been learning the secrets of dragons since then. Her rekindled relationship with Stoic and her connection with Hiccup give the film heart, and the fact that dragons connect all of them in different ways lends added weight to the central story of liberating, protecting and caring for dragons. Blanchette’s performance is lively and fun, but she is still able to portray the character’s conflict at not returning to her family for all these years, as well as show her deep love and admiration for dragons.

The dragons themselves are also extremely endearing, especially Toothless, whose quirky, lovable mannerisms will make you wish you could have a pet dragon too. The computer animation is superb, and the visuals in the dragon sanctuary where Valka lives are spellbinding, especially the design of the Alpha dragon. The state-of-the-art animation software, developed with Hewlett-Packard, make this one of the most visually stunning animated films ever produced, and the thrilling flight scene at the start of the film is testament to that.

Despite all of these strengths, one of the unfortunate developments in the film is the relegation of Astrid, played by America Ferrera, who shone with definition, strength and character potential in the original, into what now is a secondary and minor role. This seems like a waste of a good character, and now that she is in a relationship with Hiccup it seems that she no longer has any clear motivation or character arc. Hopefully this will be remedied in the next sequel, scheduled for 2016.

Also, there is a dark turn towards the end of the film which had my 9-year-old goddaughter in tears, and might have been a step too far for the film. While it does serve the story, it might be useful, if you have a particularly sensitive child, to screen the film first and to discuss these events with them. It left me a bit uncomfortable, but the rest of the audience didn’t seem too perturbed, so it might upset adults who think about the emotional repercussions of events a lot more than it does kids who simply enjoy a good story with a sad element.

Overall, the film provides great entertainment and a strong story. There is no sign of the sophomore slump here, and Dreamworks have succeeded in building on the success of the original to create a worthy sequel and set up what is sure to be a successful franchise.