Having greatly enjoyed the first How to Train Your Dragon my expectations for the sequel were fairly high. The first film was an impressive outing for DreamWorks who, at that point, had put out many animated films which I felt were simply passable pieces of safe, sometimes pandering entertainment. DreamWorks had something special in the first film, perhaps a sign that it was finally ready to contend with animated film juggernaut Pixar. With How to Train Your Dragon 2, DreamWorks continues to close the gap in quality with Pixar.
While the first film saw it’s protagonist Hiccup coming to terms with his identity and how it differed from the rest of Berk’s citizens, the majority of the film focused on the conflict between Vikings and dragons. At the outset of the sequel, Vikings and dragons have learned to coexist and even thrive together in the small, rocky village of Berk. With just about everybody riding on dragons the world opens up to the Viking community and especially to Hiccup (Baruchel) who has now taken it upon himself to map out the world around Berk.
The first film did an excellent job of creating a believable word that felt authentic inside its own rules (Dragons are a part of the character’s daily lives after all). In How to Train Your Dragon 2 Hiccup’s world has expanded and audiences get to embark on this journey of discovery along with him and his dragon companion Toothless. The film opens with a dragon riding sequence which reintroduces us to the previous film’s supporting characters. It is an exciting way to bring us back into the world of the film while showing us just how much has changed in the last five years since the first film concluded. Dragons are everywhere and Berk has adjusted to their new lifestyle, buckets of water over every building in case of accidental fire for example.
Shortly after the dragon racing sequence we are then reunited with Hiccup and Toothless who are off on another mapping expedition. If the dragon racing opening didn’t convince you of the effectiveness that the 3D format has in accentuating the film’s animation then images of Hiccup and Toothless soaring through the clouds certainly will. The song ‘Where No One Goes’ (Jónsi) accompanies this portion of the film and is it used expertly to imbue a sense of discovery and speed that surely matches Hiccup’s own feelings.
The rest of the soundtrack by John Powell is equally well performed and expertly chosen. There are many moments of physical comedy being performed by the dragons in the background and the jaunty tunes mimic and match the actions on-screen recalling classic Disney animation. The 3D effect is also expertly used throughout the film with multiple planes of depth being used to highlight these moments while also adding a sense of urgency and speed to the action scenes. Speaking of actions scenes, there are more in the sequel and they are many times larger in scale. Fortunately, the action in the film feels justified, conflicts portrayed throughout the movie serve to drive the story forward and it never feels like the director is simply overindulging with expensive CGI.
So the film looks and sounds incredible, but an excellent presentation alone does not a good movie make. It is good news then that the nuanced and layered characters from the first film continue to show shades of complexity that one might not expect from an animated children’s film. Whereas the first film focused almost exclusively on themes of inclusion and acceptance, the sequel attempts to tackle subjects as varied as broken families, loss of innocence, issues of identity and societal differences. To director Dean DeBlois’ credit, How to Train Your Dragon 2 never feels heavy handed in its messages and instead feels sincere throughout.
At the center of the film’s conflict is the villain Drago Bludvist. Drago is a self proclaimed ‘dragon master’ and wishes to bring all people under his rule. Voicing Drago is actor Djimon Hounsou who lends a low, gravelly menace fitting of the character. Hounsou’ guttural screams ring loudly as he commands Leviathan, an alpha dragon that he has brought under his control. A bumbling henchman of Drago’s appears early in the film, voiced by Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones. Harrington’s Eret is a nice change of pace for the actor who has almost exclusively played the quiet, brooding type. Eret fits the mould of a very clumsy rogue figure and his inclusion in the film provides both an interesting source of conflict as well as many laughs.
The idea of an alpha dragon was introduced in the first film and with the mythology of the world being fleshed out in the sequel the introduction of a new pair of alpha dragons makes sense. These dragons command all other dragons and when the two opposing alphas meet (a battle instigated by Drago) the ensuing action scenes begin to recall moments from this year’s Godzilla reboot. The battles in How to Train Your Dragon 2 are awe inspiring. Toothless looks like a fly when seen against the view of one the massive alpha dragons. These moments of conflict carry real consequences and the film does not shy away from showing these on screen. A children’s film with scenes of war doesn’t typically show the aftermath and consequences of such battles but DeBlois does not cut away from the repercussions of battle. This willingness to acknowledge more mature topics in a non heavy handed way is one of the film’s greatest strengths. It does not play down to its audience. Actions have consequences and the film give’s both its characters as well as its audience room to breathe while they process it.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a successful sequel and a fantastic movie in its own right. It is exhilarating to watch the aerial sequences unfold and the entire film is a technical marvel. Many moments in this film had me recalling Disney’s Frozen, another animated film that portrayed icy landscapes beautifully on-screen. The additional ticket hike for 3D is justified as it serves to highlight the fantastic animation on display. How to Train Your Dragon 2 remains a fun, enjoyable series while simultaneously growing in maturity much in the same way that Hiccup does in the film. If this is the trajectory of the franchise then I am eagerly anticipating the final part of a trilogy that seems to be getting better with age.