I’ve gotten saddled with some animated duds over my time here at Movieboozer – Turbo, Free Birds, and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return anyone? But I was beyond psyched when I got the much anticipated sequel to the fantastic How to Train Your Dragon as it was one of this year’s films I was most looking forward to.
Like millions of others, I fell in love with Hiccup and Toothless and have revisited their beautiful story over and over. It’s become one of my all-time favorite films.
After I saw it the first time, I preached like someone who just found Jesus to everyone I knew about how much they had to see it. “Oh, I don’t watch kids’ movies,” some would say. “You DON’T UNDERSTAND, this is NOT a kids’ movie,” I’d scream back. Because it’s not. It’s one of those rare, special films that transcends age. It’s moving without ever being pandering, funny without ever being dumb, and it gets an important message across without ever being sanctimonious. Just thinking of that scene of Toothless helping Hiccup walk for the first time with his new prosthetic leg, as Hiccup had helped him fly before, is enough to…yup, I’m tearing up now… hold on a second.
And we’re back. Seriously though, that is one of the most gorgeous and touching images ever put to screen. What I’m saying is, the first How to Train Your Dragon was pretty much a masterpiece. When a part two was announced, along with being excited for the next chapter, I was equally nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the original and even worse, possibly even tarnish my memory of it. That’s always the risk with going the sequel route with something so beloved. For every Toy Story 2 (and 3) there’s a Shrek 3 (and 4) and this is Dreamworks, not Pixar, we’re talking about.
But rest assured, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a more-than-worthy follow-up to its predecessor.
We pick up in the island of Berk five years after Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless first taught the Vikings that humans and dragons can live together in harmony. Everyone is still getting along wonderfully and things are better than ever. But Hiccup, now twenty years old, is feeling a little overwhelmed and unsure of his father Stoick’s (Gerard Butler) plans for him to take over as chief. He often avoids his dad by exploring the territories around Berk with Toothless.
One day, they happen upon a new location and meet a dragon trapper who works for an evil man known as Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is amassing an army of dragons. Hiccup is determined to find Drago and reason with him; however, his father has other plans. He has a history with Drago and knows there is no negotiating with him. As Stoick prepares for war, Hiccup remains undeterred in his quest to keep the peace and finds an unexpected ally that turns out to be something even more.
The best compliment I can think to give an animated film is that it’s so well done that the viewer forgets they’re watching an animated film and just gets lost in its world. Just as in the first film, that is absolutely the case with How to Train Your Dragon 2.
The animation and art direction is extraordinary, even surpassing the original. Everywhere you look, there are small details, all of which are no doubt the result of painstaking hours spent creating them. It’s especially evident in the breathtaking flying scenes. The 3D is well-used, never gimmicky, and adds to the experience.
Cut back on the popcorn if you want to save a few bucks, but definitely spring for the 3D.
Toothless is even more enchanting and expressive this time around. It’s hard to take your eyes off him in every scene he’s in. Of course there are some new dragons too, and a couple of them are like nothing seen before. They are jaw-droppingly incredible.
The animators didn’t slack on the humans either. Since the movie takes place five years after the first, each character has been aged appropriately, which is important, since many have now become adults.
Is is weird that I find grown-up Hiccup kind of hot?
The care put into facial expressions is especially apparent in several emotional moments where there is no dialogue at all. None of those dreaded animated “dead eyes” to be found anywhere near this film.
In fact these characters are more expressive than many real-life actors!
The soundtrack by John Powell (who also scored the first film) must be mentioned as it complements the visuals perfectly and never feels tacked on.
The best animation and visual effects are nothing without a great story, though, and writer/director Dean DeBlois does not disappoint. He expands on the world of the first film and takes it in unexpected directions all while still staying true to the fun and wonder that originally captured our hearts.
The action sequences are as good as any non-animated summer blockbuster, in some cases, even better. Usually with “family” (again, I hesitate to refer to the Dragon films that way because they are so much more) movies, even though there are moments in which the characters are in peril, you know that everything will turn out okay in the end. Good will conquer evil. Everyone will survive. There’s never any real fear. In this case though, there are some genuine heart-pounding scares and a few times I wondered if maybe things really weren’t going to be okay in the end.
As in the first, the relationship between humans and animals is explored but it goes much deeper this time, and reminds us that as human and “ours” as animals may seem, they are neither. (I am reminded of this every time I attempt to cut my Chihuahua’s nails.)
The film shines just as bright in the quieter emotional parts. Without giving anything away, it takes a very dark turn that is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. It’s an extremely brave decision on DeBlois’ part and adds a lot of weight. As a viewer, I appreciated that he trusted the audience to go there. But oh man, the way it goes down. I’m going to stop here and not reveal any more than I already have. Just prepare yourself.
Of course, it’s the fantastic cast that brings everything to life. All the favorites are back: Obviously, Jay Baruchel, who to me is so linked to his character that whenever I see the actual live-person actor, it sounds weird that Hiccup’s voice is coming out of him. America Ferrera returns as Astrid, now Hiccup’s long-time girlfriend (There is a great early scene between the two that feels so genuine, so much like a couple that have been together for years, that I couldn’t help beaming throughout the entire thing. It’s hilarious and wonderful.).
Much of the comic relief is supplied by Kristen Wiig as Ruffnut, who gets a lot more dialogue this time around, likely due to how much of a bigger star she’s become. Also back are Jonah Hill (Snoutlout), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs), T.J. Miller (Tuffnut), Gerard Butler (Stoick), and Craig Ferguson (Gobber), who gets a whopper of a line. There are a few new additions: Cate Blanchett (Valka), proving once again that she can do anything, Kit Harington (who you may know from a little show called Game of Thrones) as Eret, and Djimon Hounsou as the menacing Drago.
Like Hiccup and Toothless, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is more mature while still maintaining all the qualities that made it so endearing the first time around. It’s a whole lot of fun with many laugh out loud moments, but it’s also deeper and considerably darker. DeBlois revealed that he used The Empire Strikes Back as its model, and that’s a pretty fitting comparison. As a fan of the original, it exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to see where it goes next (there will be a third installment). This is easily my favorite film of the year so far, and it’s going to be hard to top.
Take a Drink: every time Hiccup narrates “This is Berk.”
Take a Drink: whenever you catch Toothless doing something adorable in the background.
Take a Drink: whenever Ruffnut fawns over Eret.
Take a Drink: BABY DRAGONS!!!
Take a Drink: every time someone mentions the name Drago.
Take a Drink: when a character comes out of the closet.
Do a Shot: you’ll know when you need it. You might need two.