How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) Review:
I sat down recently with some friends of mine, and by friends of mine I mean the two ladies on the other side of the pharmacy whose conversation I was listening in on (I don’t have any real friends). They were trying to decide which film to go and see that night, and when they came to the movie which this review is about, one woman scoffed at the idea of seeing a “cartoon thing like that”. Suddenly, I put down my Oreo Cadbury chocolate bar and tried to imagine the countless hours spent designing the characters, environments, animation styles, and then on top of that, having to actually make a movie with snappy yet realistic dialogue and a story that was worth a damn. Add that to the time spent training actors used to relying on more than just their vocal performance to sell a character, an animated movie is a hell of a lot of work. And yet, there are still those in this world who would rather see ‘Think Like a Man Too’. Although I liked the first one, and haven’t seen the sequel, movies that are set in Vegas haven’t had a very good track record as of late.
Of course, this conversation only confirmed my long-held suspicion that to the general audience, animated movies are one of the most underrated forms of cinema. I can partially understand this, as perhaps they have not been exposed to the better offerings of the genre. Lord knows that for every ‘LEGO movie’ there are 50 movies like ‘Nut Job’. Studios often saturate the market with a plethora of films with hyperactive cartoon characters for parents to shove in front of their kids to get them to stop talking for 90 minutes. However, when an animated movie is good, it’s not just a fun film, but often an important one for its target audience. Because of the way animated films are indeed targeted towards children, they are used as vessels to tackle a more mature theme underneath the vibrant characters and musical numbers. ‘The Lion King’ helps to deal with death, responsibility, and shame. ‘Toy Story’ movies help one understand feelings of abandonment and change and the original ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ makes it easier to deal with the horrible reality of traumatic amputation. Animated movies are horrendously underrated, and are considered in my view to at times be the highest form of cinema. Just not most of the time.
With that in mind, I walked into this movie with admittedly middle of the road expectations. The first film surprisingly proved itself to be a level above the regular supply of child’s cinematic cocaine. This was a pure, uncut, premium, animated high. It was a comedy but it wasn’t without heart and the shining aspect of the movie was its characterization. ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ relies on this strong characterization in its opening scenes. We’re reintroduced into the Isle of Berk, which has undergone great transformation since last we saw it. Dragons are no longer the terrors of the night sky but now aid the Vikings in what can only be described as Quidditch but with dragons instead of brooms, which ups the stakes considerably. It’s been a whole 5 years since the events of the last film and although change is in the air, some fools just dare to be different. Hiccup seems to be a contrarian at heart as even though he is lauded as the pride of Berk, he still would rather spend his time discovering far off lands on the back of his night fury, Toothless.
It’s this which makes the beginning of the movie a tad bit worrying. Although the opening sequence signals that the film is a different monster than it’s predecessor, the story beats can’t help but feel a bit similar. The basic plot outline as its presented here is that Hiccup’s father, Stoick, played by Leonidas, wants Hiccup, played by the perpetually whiny Jay Baruchel, to become chief of Berk. Hiccup doesn’t feel up to the job and would much rather hang out with his pet discovering the world. Compare this to the story of the original, in which Hiccup doesn’t want to kill a dragon and would much rather hang out with his pet and learn how to fly, and ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ dangerously feels like it’s going down the path of ‘Ghostbusters II’ or ‘The Hangover Part II’ and telling a story that is simply a rehash of the original.
It’s not until the very end of the first act, but once all the set up is out if the way, the movie thankfully comes into its own and doesn’t stop from then on. The movie brings along the supporting cast from the last film and they help to make the movie feel like there’s always something going on. There’s a sub-plot with these characters that don’t really go anywhere but it’s entertaining nonetheless mostly feeling like something that would come out of an episode of an animated kids show. The voice actors from the first film return for this one but this is slightly awkward in the case of Hiccup. Since Hiccup is now 20 instead of 15 it stands to reason that his voice would develop past that of a baby trying to speak while chewing its food. In fact, they even make fun of his lack of development in the film. When you get over that though, Baruchel actually gives quite a performance. You definitely get the sense that this is a character who has grown since you last saw him both in what he says and how he says it. ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ has uniquely created a character that will have grown alongside the audience that fell in love with him the first time.
The key to that growth is Hiccup’s continuing search for identity. Everything may seem to be going his way; he has his dad’s pride, a cute girlfriend and his relationship with Toothless is even stronger. When his dad asks him to become the new chief, he can’t help but think that despite all his development he still has no idea who he is. I thought this was a very poignant storyline. While it does initially seem like a similar foil to the first film, it actually ends up being a refreshing take on how a sequel is done right. Instead of creating a completely new conflict for Hiccup to deal with, the movie services it’s character by simply saying that the ideas of the first film were not ones that could be realistically resolved in a 90-minute runtime. This makes ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ feel immensely connected to its predecessor. Where Hiccup might have undergone some great change in the first film, this movie reminds us that growing up is hard and you’re never quite finished with it as life will always find some way to challenge you.
As if that weren’t enough, Hiccup has to set aside his young adult identity crisis and deal with a whole other life-threatening plot. When traveling on the back of Toothless, Hiccup comes across a conflict that threatens his home and everyone he loves when he comes across Eret, son of Eret (who is played unrecognizably by Jon Snow). Eret is a trapper looking to collect dragons for the evil Drago Bloodvist played by Djimon Hounsou. Drago is the films main villain and to that measure he’s great. He certainly walks with a formability that a Viking would have and the movie actually paints him as quite a sympathetic villain even if his plan of rule the world with dragons is a bit played. Coming across Drago also forces Hiccup to be reunited with his long-lost mother played by Cate Blanchett. This nicely fuses Hiccup’s personal arc with the film’s plot as running into his mother not only aids in developing his identity but also in his fight against Drago. I found the portrayal of Hiccup’s mother quite humorous. I won’t spoil the reason for her absence as it plays into the Hiccup’s journey, but it basically boils down to the mother who leaves because she feels trapped and wants to find herself on a trek through the wilderness. It works for the movie and ties in with Hiccup’s personal journey but there’s the feeling that maybe Hiccup forgives this a little too easily.
With all these story elements, it’s easy to assume that the movie bites off a bit more than it can chew, but it actually pulls it all off at the same time injecting the movie with some top of the line action sequences. You may have forgotten that this movie has dragons in it but damn, does it ever. Each member of the supporting cast has a dragon of their own and each one has a unique aesthetic design and personality. The first film affirmed that dragons are no more than oversized fire-breathing pets, with the qualities of both a cat and a dog, and this film goes further with that notion making the beasts as loveable as ever. However, when it comes time to kick ass, asses are indeed kicked. Continuing the tradition of incredible use of 3D in Dreamworks Animated features, this movie is perhaps the only movie this year that I’ve seen that’s deserving of the 3D price tag. You definitely feel the weight of a dragon’s wings as you soar through the air at incredible speeds, and be bobbing and weaving in your seat to avoid the arrows shot your way.
‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ strikes the same notes of its first film, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not lazy in its storytelling and it doesn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel. It perfectly advances its story and characters by being a true continuation of its first film. This truly feels like a movie that was born out of an actual idea. It had a place to take its characters and wasn’t a platform to sell toys, tickets and promote a television show. The way the film balances its action, humour and heartfelt moments is beautifully wrapped up in returning composer John Powell. The score here is as fantastic as it was in the first film which added a bonus to the film for me personally because I quite enjoy when a film franchise has a familiar theme throughout its iterations. All in all this movie was wonderful and definitely worth the price of admission. I’d very much like to see it again.
Rating: Big Screen Watch