How to Train Your Dragon was a real surprise. Unlike its other Dreamworks Animation brethren, the film eschewed broad, frantic, often referential humor and instead delivered a heartfelt coming-of-age tale unafraid to let the lush, evocative animation do the talking. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the film delivers. This sequel expertly expands the world and its themes, advancing the series in sometimes surprising ways.
The movie takes place five years after the first installment. The Viking community of Berk now happily co-exists with dragons. Twenty-year-old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being pressured by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) to take on the mantle of chief. But Hiccup isn’t ready for that, devoting all of his time to exploring the lands beyond Berk atop his dragon Toothless. There he encounters a group of dragon trappers working for a vicious pirate named Drago Bloodfist. Bloodfist is raising a fearsome dragon army in order to bend the world to his will. Hiccup also encounters a mysterious dragon rider that shares a link to his family’s past.
Whereas the first started in frantic chaos, this film immediately establishes a more ordered status quo. The land of Berk is beautifully realized, having a full economy and lifestyle based around interactions with dragons. It’s charming, imaginative stuff, giving the movie vitality even before the story actually kicks in. There’s often a lot of stuff going on in the background, the film always filling its spaces with rich, comedic detail. The story, though at times unfocused, ends up being pretty affecting. Once again, the film exhibits a willingness to slow things down and really linger on what’s been lost between its characters.
The story resolves a little too cleanly, but it’s easily forgiven. The film provides plenty of pleasures elsewhere. Its action set pieces are humongous and very well composed. The comedy is confidently delivered. The creature designs are simply wonderful, with dozens of completely unique dragons often just floating around in the background. The animation in general is spectacular. Once again, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand as visual consultant. His presence on the project really has resulted in some amazing scenes. There is a sequence in the film that takes place just above the clouds, and the way the light interacts with every element in that scene can only be the result of the years Deakins has spent wrangling light on sets. It’s beautiful stuff.
Jay Baruchel continues to be excellent as Hiccup. The actor’s inherent earnestness shines through a more confident looking character. Gerard Butler is doing his best work as Stoick the Vast, delivering a truly charming mixture of gruffness and fatherly intent. The great Cate Blanchett joins the cast, doing an amazing job expressing her character’s alienation. She affects a rather strange accent, but it never gets in the way of what turns out to be the film’s most effective performance, the actress evoking a deep history of regret and loss in the spaces between her words.
I would note that though How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated G locally, it’s probably closer to a PG. The film does try to deal with slightly more mature issues; things that a parent might want to be around for to help explain to his or her young child. This is not a knock against the film in any way, however. It is admirable that it’s willing to take to risks, and to not talk down to kids. Like the first movie, this sequel isn’t afraid to make people feel things. That may sound kind of absurd, but it’s a rarer quality than one might think. A film like this ought to be treasured.