Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchette, Gerard Butler, America Ferrara, Craig Ferguson, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harrington, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, T. J Miller, Kristen Wiig
Plot: Hiccup (Baruchel) and Toothless are busy, charting the world beyond Berk and learning about dragons, as a mysterious enemy from the past returns to the Viking village.
Honestly speaking, How To Train Your Dragon could have been a steaming load of rubbish and most of the fans, including myself, would have lapped it up. Toothless is so adorable, not to mention solid fun, that a movie with little more than Hiccup and his dragon getting up to no good, would have been a satisfying follow-up to Dreamworks’ animated family film. However, thankfully, this is a sequel that does not ride on its past success and instead delivers a surprisingly strong movie.
The first half hour is pretty standard stuff for a family film sequel. Now that the Vikings and dragons live in harmony, the island of Berk has totally transformed. There is a sense that director and writer DeBlois is in his element in the opening few minutes of How to Train Your Dragon able to open with all of the dragon gags he wanted to in the last film, but couldn’t due to the pace of the story. The film seemingly centres around the generic sequel territory of hero’s identity crisis. Now that Gerard Butler’s manly Viking chief respects his alternative male figure of a son, Hiccup, he is trying to rear him up to be the future chief of the village. However, that is not what Hiccup wants from life, more prepared to spend his free time riding Toothless further and further from Berk, mapping both landmarks and new dragon species on his travels. Meanwhile, another Viking warlord, Drago, has amassed an army of dragons and is planning on invading various Viking settlements with his new forces. However, while Hiccup has taught Berk to raise dragons with love and compassion, Drago dominates them, becoming the alpha male of each dragon pack he finds. It is all very exciting, Drago voiced expectedly intimidating by Djimon Hounsou and a sinister figure of a villain, yet still nothing we don’t expect from a children’s film. Hiccup needs to use his kind traits to upstage a power-hungry warlord’s rule. The one partially unexpected new story beat is the appearance of Hiccup’s believed-dead mother. Revealed in the trailers, it was certainly enough reason to make How to Train Your Dragon 2 worth a trip to the cinema, yet still nothing to far from the standard sequel structure. Hell, any franchise that hits a certain amount of entries, usually tries to dig out some parent issues to shake up the formula a bit. DeBlois does write the mother figure well, as he does the reaction from Gerard Butler’s father, making the scenes pleasantly apart from the expected. Perhaps I am sounding unfair in my criticisms of How to Train Your Dragon 2, because I do not actually see them as criticisms. Routine has its place and what this sequel does is focus more on its splendid imagery. There are some great sequences born from this narrative, including some wonderful flying shots. Cate Blanchette’s mother is so at one with a community of dragons, she hops gracefully from each flying beast with the air of a ballet dancer. Action sequences find the right balance between tense and fun. And whenever the film finds a pretty dense piece of exposition to get through, all it needs is a cutaway to Toothless’s expression at the time to bring the film right back to amusing once again. Toothless really is an amazing creation.
Then the film throws a pretty solid twist into the mix. The ‘what’ isn’t as surprising, as the ‘how’. When it happens, the horror transfixes you to the screen, the realisation of what the writers are about to do hitting before it actually does. The neat thing is the fact that this is the kind of shock we do not expect from a family adventure film. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is surprisingly dark for its genre. In some respects, it is amazing to watch. As you settle into a fun adventure with characters you have grown to love, it is great to watch them suddenly develop to such an extent in front of you. It is a common flaw with animated film series, like Toy Story for instance, that the supporting cast don’t get too much to do in terms of growth. For this film to suddenly force such a major change to the mix, you feel like the movie is meeting you halfway in terms of maturity. For an older viewer, everything How to Train Your Dragon 2 does is mesmerisingly entertaining. But will it keep the kids happy, especially when that emotional beat kicks in? The animation is the same. DeBlois has gone with a darker colour tone, bringing out the realism of the characters. When Hiccup emotes, we feel it in his body language. However, the children might miss the colourful joy of the earlier movie. That’s where the dragons come in, bringing solid laughs to a movie that, in the final third, seems to focus entirely on its drama.
Final Verdict: How to Train Your Dragon 2 might not be the most entertaining animated series, but it has just become one of the most essential.