The stars are the limit for the How to Train Your Dragon franchise since it’s long past conquered the skies. The first high-flying, fire-breathing adventure was a breath of fresh air when it premiered in the spring of 2010, but may have been a tad undervalued since its animated competition at the time was Pixar’s emotional juggernaut Toy Story 3. While the former film’s cutesy animation and innately juvenile yet beautifully told story held it back from fully absorbing the attention of adults as it did the Lilo and Stitch-catered child audience, I can promise you that Dean DeBlois’ follow-up How to Train Your Dragon 2 offers more accessibility, fun and heart than any blockbuster or franchise flick you’ve seen at this point in the year. With the stakes raised for our characters and the Viking/dragon world they inhabit, you can bet you’ll be cycling through every emotional response by the time the end credits appear. Move over The LEGO Movie because the first true Academy Award contender for “Best Animated Feature” has arrived and comes fully equipped to scorch the entire competition.
After five years of peace in the now dragon-inclusive Viking kingdom of Berk, we find our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) still taking every opportunity to put off his destiny and responsibilities for as long as he can. Hiccup’s procrastination is our gain since we’re graced with astonishing aerial sequences involving Hiccup and his loyal companion Toothless, the kind-looking yet fierce Night Fury dragon who Hiccup first injured then eventually groomed into a best friend. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins served as visual consultant on this film, and you can feel his influence in almost every dynamically composed frame of this sequel. Deakins’ sense of animated action, scale and character-to-camera approximation is second to none. In many ways he’s as much a contributing storyteller as scribe Dean DuBlois and the entire design team that worked on this picture; their collaboration makes the film visually pop in ways unimaginable to even the most diehard animation/CGI fan. It’s not too much of a stretch to throw this out there: How to Train Your Dragon 2 is bar-none Dreamworks’ best looking film and quite possibly the most impressively designed animated feature in motion picture history.
Alright, alright – I’ll stop gushing over the visuals since I could really go on all day about the film’s physical beauty. Eventually Hiccup’s warrior extraordinaire girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) catches up to him and gently reminds Hiccup that he’ll be asked to step in as chief of Berk at any moment now so he best get used to the idea. Hiccup has no desire to lead his people, as his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is already doing such a fine job and deserves an heir who has the stomach for dullsville bureaucracy. Hiccup would rather go exploring and save dragons from the plight of human cruelty. Thankfully, this small point of contention is the only source of division between Hiccup and Astrid. Unlike most sequels which exhaustingly test the relationship of the hero and his/her new lover, How to Train Your Dragon 2 trusts that its couple can storm any hardship that threatens their momentary peace. Ditching such cliché narrative beats gives Astrid an identity of her own, a strength that cannot be overcome when danger finds her. You won’t see Astrid shrieking for “her man” to come rescue her from the perils of villainy, though the film does poke fun at the damsel-in-distress trope in the form of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), female twin of tough-minded Tuffnut (T.J. Miller). Wigg’s Ruffnut draws some of the biggest laughs when she ogles the boys (namely Kit Harrington’s dragon hunter Eret), ignores them when they give her attention (Fishlegs and Snoutlout, played respectively by Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill) and then sighs in disbelief when they in turn ignore her.
It doesn’t take long for the film’s innocuous beginning to fall by the wayside as a new threat to Berk is quickly revealed. Contracted by a mysterious man known as Drago (Djimon Hounsou), freelance dragon hunters and pirates are tasked to capture dragons for a new dragon army that will be used to conquer Berk and its people. Hiccup and Astrid learn of this plan after being attacked by Drago’s second-in-command and head dragon hunter, Eret, while exploring the territories well beyond Berk’s borders. Astrid and Hiccup return with a coterie of their closest friends and dragons, kidnap Eret and his crew, and force the vagabonds to take them to Drago. Rather than launch a preemptive strike against their enemy like his father desires, Hiccup instead wants to take the diplomatic approach. He hopes that by reasoning with Drago (like he did with his father and the other anti-dragon skeptics of Berk in the first film) war can be prevented and minds will again be changed regarding the misconceptions of the dragon species. Drago, like most animated villains with a grain of substance, has his reasons for hating dragons and conquering all who wish to coexist in harmony with them. Drago, who looks like a cross between Tarzan and Mickey Rourke, is predictably stubborn and more power hungry than he admits. I wouldn’t call him one of the finest villains the genre has ever offered (he’s largely brutish and prone to excessive battle cries), but behind his tunnel-vision mentality, I did see a lost soul that might have been saved at one point. In fact, there’s a pivotal exchange between Drago and Hiccup near the end of the film where you actually believe Hiccup’s diplomacy might just crack the evil wall covering Drago’s heart.
Alas, the fates of this franchise dictate that war is inevitable and thus we are pummeled with a plethora of spectacular, rousing, emotionally impactful battle sequences. How to Train Your Dragon 2 also contains one of the darkest plot twists ever witnessed in an animated film, the sadness coming more from how the tragedy came about than the tragedy itself. During his travels, Hiccup also encounters Valka (Cate Blanchett), a human female secluded from the world whose sole job is to protect a hidden-away dragon kingdom that’s lorded over by the Alpha, the most powerful dragon subspecies in existence. The Alpha has the ability to telepathically control and command dragons at will, a power that could be horrifically exploited if fallen into the wrong hands. You haven’t seen monolithic folklore creatures until you’ve seen the Alpha up close in 3D – I promise you, your mental threshold of scale and enormity will be shattered. As for Valka, I won’t go into too much detail surrounding her other than Blanchett does a marvelous job imbuing this character – who, by the way, drops earth-shattering news on Hiccup and Stoik — with grace, sophistication and courage. Blanchett will likely be nominated for an Annie because of her thespian credibility, but the achievement for outstanding voice acting should really go to Kit Harrington. Harrington helps Eret transition from a brash, arrogant, Gaston-type into a witty, redeemable and downright compelling character with a credible redemption arc. I’ve long thought Harrington would make a better voice actor than live-action performer (his facial expressions leave a lot to be desired, namely something other than a pout), and it turns out I was right. Jay Baruchel as Hiccup and Gerard Butler as Stoik also do top-notch voice work in the film, adding more layers to both their characters and the father-son bond they share together.
All in all, Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2 stands tall alongside sequels that accomplish far more than their predecessors ever could. Occasionally the film gets bogged down by plot and repetitive gags, but with visuals so delightful and characters so pure and human, even the flaws turn into forgotten memories whenever John Powell’s exhilarating score kicks in. Be sure to check out this animated treasure hitting theaters everywhere Friday, June 13th. Here is the film’s trailer and some images from the HTTYD2 art gallery event I attended before the screening.