DreamWorks Animation’s latest feature takes nearly everything that was great about the first How to Train Your Dragon film and expands on it. The characters are funnier, and none of them are nearly as annoying as they sometimes used to be. The setting was gorgeous to start with, but its scope now seems to accommodate the viewer’s imagination instead of feeling more restricted to what can reasonably be shown in a movie. Most importantly, regardless of the story’s remaining flaws, it does way too much right for me to call it anything less than excellent.
These people have truly matured.
Five years after the first film’s conclusion, series protagonist Hiccup has grown from being an insecure and inert boy to being a confident and handsome young man. He is literally instantly more likable, having replaced his endless complaining with a zest for his Viking way of life. Astrid, whom Hiccup’s father Stoick “the Vast” is already speaking of as being his future daughter-in-law, has shed her acerbic personality and is much more able to get along with Hiccup and their other friends, each of whom are goofy in their own ways. The island of Berk has improved as well: dragons are no longer the antagonists and have been fully integrated into Berk society, resulting in a village shifting at least partly away from its militaristic focus. The film opens with a marvelous dragon race, complete with sheep catapults (no one gets eaten) that make for a very silly and woolly sport. This flight sequence, the first of many, is a brilliantly exciting start that sets the pacing for the rest of the movie.
Hiccup, however, is nowhere to be found; he is off exploring with the most wonderful dragon who acts like a cat who acts like a dog, the Night Fury known as Toothless, so called because of his retractable teeth. Hiccup and his steed have been practicing amazing stunts that could easily fill an air show, and the former even boasts his own wingsuit now. They, along with Astrid and her dragon known as a Deadly Nadder, eventually discover an ice-blasted fort in considerable disrepair. Unfortunately for the heroes, they quickly find themselves attempting to evade trappers in the employ of a rival Viking civilization. These trappers answer to one Drago Bludvist, who wants to create an army of dragons and is willing to stoop to manipulation and theft.
After he and Astrid return to safety, Hiccup’s warning gives his father a rude awakening: unwilling to humor Hiccup’s idealistic desires to reason with Drago, Stoick tells a grisly story of their last encounter and of Drago’s underhanded peace offer that cost the lives of Stoick’s fellow chieftains. Attempting to minimize risk in a startlingly familiar way, Stoick closes the village borders and grounds all flights, but not before his son and future daughter take matters into their own hands. Hiccup’s and Astrid’s (mostly Hiccup’s) increasingly strange plan to find Bludvist is relentlessly amusing to watch, and while they meet a variety of new faces, far and away the most meaningful is the one belonging to someone Hiccup hasn’t ever known–Valka, his mother. She helps to make this dragon story unforgettably human.
A world redefined
For twenty years following Hiccup’s infancy, Valka has helped look after what is essentially a no-kill shelter for dragons of all kinds and sizes. It’s a gorgeous space with dozens of occupants, and while she has otherwise been absent from her son’s life, she definitely proves her love and selflessness. Their reunion, eventually including Stoick, is absolutely beautiful and stands above everything else this film has to offer. This wife-and-husband romance is alive and powerful in a way that, in movies, I would usually associate with youth and fancy or escapism. DreamWorks opted for a more mature approach to marriage, and they did so without resorting to Shrek 2’s bickering. This family is young at heart, and their love is the kind that keeps the days special. This woman, however, lends a particular subtlety to a film series that frankly benefits heavily from it, and the writing tells an adept story of the bond between a mother and her child. There is thankfully no forced drama between Valka and Hiccup, even as one event late in the plot would have made for a very tempting opportunity that might well have derailed the story. She is perhaps the most nuanced member of her family, questioning her son’s naive plans without coming across as a one-dimensional foil like his father does.
One of the dragons, of a breed known as a Bewilderbeast, is so gigantic that I initially mistook it for part of the scenery. It is an “alpha,” who commands the obedience of the other dragons and is given a level of reverence almost befitting a deity. Drago, with plans for Berk, has his own such creature, and the two of them and many other participants on both sides stage an incredible fight. The previous film’s training sequences were smoothly paced, but now that they are no longer needed, the story speeds up and replaces those with impressive action scenes.
By this point the movie seems to have forgotten all about the lip service it’s given to pacifistic beliefs, and attention is given to a massive battle that may be slightly difficult to follow if only because of the sheer amount of activity on display. Without giving away details, the battle’s ending signals a much darker turn for the mood of the story and introduces a twisted reprise of the eponymous premise.
The meaning of trust
Hiccup’s dragon-taming abilities no longer feel like an arbitrary ability rather than a profound insight into the minds of these creatures, and whether wings and claws fill the screen or are out of sight, the film’s rush to a close is powerful and even touching to watch. It’s also difficult at times: at one point the audience is told that “good” dragons controlled by bad people do bad things, and then one enemy creature is bombarded with heavy amounts of fire as if at the hands of an execution squad. It thankfully doesn’t die from this unpleasant-in-context display of violence, which would have been unbearable with my still being confused as to how much responsibility this particular monster ultimately held for its actions.
That, however, really is my problem with the film’s approach toward pacifism. The idea is understandable in itself–especially since Valka seems to hold more hope for the dragons than for Drago–but the story has no desire to follow through with it. As with the first film, the plot climaxes not with reasoning and redemption but with a display of arms. The villains are so flat and their motives so typical that it’s hard to believe these people weren’t created for the sake of being targets, making the story’s preaching all the more difficult to tolerate. Even still, though it’s not at all what I expected, the story’s establishment of a close family is more than heartfelt and thorough enough to make up for any issues found in the other subplots. Astrid and Hiccup’s additional friends don’t receive a heavy amount of development, but all of them are fun to watch, even as one of the girls develops stalker-like mannerisms for one of the new boys; sure, her behavior is funny, but I wonder if it would still be received as such if the roles were reversed.
All in all, cliché as it may seem, the film really is a beautiful display of the value and depth of friendship, as well as of its ability to overcome unthinkable obstacles. The story is full of emotional surprises both joyous and tragic, and more than proving its worth, it sets new heights in ways I hadn’t imagined. The animation on the main characters and large numbers of dragons looks amazing, though human crowds look a bit stiff by comparison. The water is even more gorgeous here than in the first movie, but on the other end, some scenes are just so dim that even if they’re meant to emphasize fire in contrast, they become difficult to watch on a screen that doesn’t have a strong backlight. The 3D emphasizes important characters nicely and works well at multiple layers of depth, even if it doesn’t seem quite as incredible as the predecessor did four years ago–but the stellar art design is more than capable of pulling its own weight. The music is as phenomenal as it ever was, with the standout piece being one of the quietest: it’s a beautiful piano rendition of the series’ main theme.
Conclusion: DreamWorks, how far you’ve come.
I remember all too well when I couldn’t stand this company’s animated films. While I greatly enjoyed the first Shrek movie, I despised the second for its pacing while tolerating what I saw of the third, eventually losing interest in the series. Shark Tale held no interest for me at all, and the only thing I can remember from it was a cavalcade of product-placement jokes. Then came Kung Fu Panda, which gave me new hope for a company I once respected for Antz, and now I find myself here, at the apex of everything I’ve ever seen from this studio.
The first How to Train Your Dragon may well be the best film I’ve ever seen that I would nonetheless consider to be superseded by its sequel. Hiccup is still at times indecisive, but less so; he still has a tense relationship with his father, but less so; and the art, music, the writing to a degree, and especially the pacing all receive delightful and much appreciated improvements, whether they were needed or not. DreamWorks takes a like-you-really-would moment and delivers, without so much as an apology or a hint of suspense, and yet the movie also provides plenty of gags and laughs and is always sure of the mood, if not the message, it wants to convey. How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes risks big and small, and for that, it stands not only at the crest of everything I’ve seen from this studio but among the heights of the medium.
Image credits (property of DreamWorks Animation and Mad Hatter Entertainment)
This review is dedicated to my longtime best friend, with whom I watched the first How to Train Your Dragon movie years ago. To say she and I both delighted in the film would be a great understatement, and I am more than happy to spotlight her own wonderful science and nature blog, A Voice from the Field.