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What will it take for DreamWorks Animation to finally break their losing streak? With How to Train Your Dragon 2, the company throws everything they’ve got at the screen. This sequel to the endearing original film, which earned close to half a billion dollars in 2010, has ladled on even more expensive state-of-the-art animation and stereoscopy technology, an elaborate script that expands its fantasy world further, oodles of action set pieces, and a dragon cast of thousands — plus recent Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett in a key role. There’s even some Game of Thrones DNA spliced in, courtesy of the casting of Kit Harington, along with thematic elements concerning power, rival kingdoms, slavery and broken families scattered throughout.
Will that do the trick? Probably, especially with an attendant blitzkrieg of marketing, although ultimately this installment, despite its breath-sucking spectacle, is sometimes more of a taxing assault course than a playful training session. Crowded with incident, frame-edge details and extra characters, and considerably scarier and more traumatic to boot, it may all prove a little too rich for the youngest of filmgoers, that key demographic which has kept the franchise fresh in the memory since 2010 through repeated viewings (endlessly repeated, some parents might report) on home entertainment platforms.
Two seasons of the series DreamWorks Dragons have already aired stateside, story material which substantially fills in how the Viking village of Berk comes to integrate the dragons into the daily lives. But although it is clear time has passed, HTTYD2 feels reasonably free-standing from all that backstory and picks up with the characters roughly four years on from the action recorded in the first film.
Clearly a bit of a late-bloomer or otherwise a beneficiary from all that fresh-air while riding the skies, hero Hiccup (voiced once again with warmth by Jay Baruchel) has filled out and grown into a dorky kind of hunk with Harry Styles hair and scratchy hipster stubble. While his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), and the other graduates of the Berk Dragon Training Academy enjoy competitive games of dragon-riding (sort of like airborne basketball using sheep instead of balls, crossed with Quidditch), Hiccup and his trusty fire-breather Toothless are off discovering new lands. His father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants Hiccup to take over someday as head of the clan, but Hiccup doesn’t fancy the responsibility and stress, laying the foundation for a predictable what-it-means-to-be-a-leader narrative arc.
On their travels, Hiccup and Astrid runs up against piratical mercenary Eret (Harington, assaying a Cockney accent) who’s trying to round up strays for an army of slave dragons ruled by his shadowy boss Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). They escape, thanks to Toothless’ superior firepower, but not before they hear tell of another dragon-riding do-gooder who’s been trying to thwart Drago’s evil plans for regional domination.
Soon enough, Hiccup meets this kindred spirit, Valka (Blanchett, whose half-Irish, half-Scottish accent sounds frankly a bit ropey, but that may be intended to suggest her social isolation). She has been living among the dragons for 20 years in a secret ice-bound aerie presided over by a massive Alpha dragon nicknamed the Bewilderbeast, who somehow controls his flock through sound and gesture. Like some kind of Dark Ages Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall (she’s described at one point as a “crazy feral vigilante dragon lady”), Valka has bonded with the animals she loves and learned much about their nature and habits. In one of the film’s most magical sequences, she shows off to Hiccup her own skill at airborne acrobatics, a display of exquisitely thoughtful character movement that illustrates Valka’s serpentine poise.
One of the core strengths of the original film was the way it infused the dragons with personality, not just through the colorful, intricate character designs, but by making them relatable to household animals. HTTYD2 expands on this repertoire beautifully. Watch Toothless, for example, especially while he frolics in the background or at the edge of the frame, and you’ll alternately see the playfulness and sinuous grace of a cat, the pack-animal loyalty of a dog, and the power and dignity of a horse. At the same time, he and his cohorts always have something uniquely dragonish, primal and reptilian about them. Clearly, these films are the work of people who love animals. More importantly though, going beyond the pat eco-conscious message that every kids’ film has to have, HTTYD2 touches on how complex the emotional bond between a person and an animal can be. This is brought home with exceptional nuance in what’s arguably the film’s most powerful scene, when Toothless accidentally kills someone and Hiccup struggles with feelings of anger and the recognition that Toothless, poor bad dragon, can’t help his nature.
Cognizant that they can’t end things on this painful lesson, the story moves on for another half-hour or so, but despite all the pyrotechnics involved in the Godzilla-like attack on Berk, nothing packs as much punch as the tragic interlude and the film struggles to right itself emotionally. Plus all that to-ing and fro-ing, endangerment and rescue stuff gets a little samey over the long haul. Once again, the more crowded canvas and more complex story could prove a barrier for younger children.
At times it feels like director Dean DeBlois (who co-directed HTTYD with Chris Sanders) and his team have jettisoned that market altogether and retooled this for a tween audience given the new emphasis on romantic relationships. In this department, HTTYD2 gets its biggest laughs out of the love-quadrangle between Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), rival Viking boys Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Snoutlout (Jonah Hill) and newcomer Eret, whose pecs Ruffnut takes a voracious fancy too. (“Me likee!” she rhapsodizes, finally allowing Wiig, a much bigger star now than she was in 2010, to flex some comic voice muscles.)
There’s no gainsaying the film’s technical achievement. The painstaking attention to detail extends from the design of the beasties and people (neatly splitting the difference between the more cartoony figures of the first film and a more photorealistic look that’s popular these days), to John Powell’s rousingly folksy, drum-lead score, to the way light falls just so in every frame, thanks in part to consultation from ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. Through sheer budget firepower alone it should roar its way through the world’s box offices this summer, although the family audience can be a fickle mistress and the competition is stiff this year.
Production company: DreamWorks Animation
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington, Djimon Hounsou, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill
Director: Dean DeBlois
Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois, Cressida Cowell, based on characters in a novel by Cressida Cowell
Producer: Bonnie Arnold
Executive producer: Dean DeBlois,
Production designer: Pierre-Olivier Vincent
Visual effects supervisor: David Walvoord
Head of character animation: Simon Otto
Editor: John K. Car
Composer: John Powell
Rated PG, 101 minutes
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