How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

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Hiccup the dragon-riding Viking returns in How to Train Your Dragon 2.  While Hiccup struggles with the growing expectation that he will take over as leader of his village, he learns of different groups that pose a threat to his home.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 is written and directed by Dean DeBlois.

Me 'n youDreamworks released the original How to Train Your Dragon over four years ago. I reviewed that film in our early months with a lowered set of expectations and came out overjoyed. Animation has always been one of the best art forms to showcase flight and there was freedom of movement I have scarcely seen since its release. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless’ story had the ring of a classic children’s tale like Shiloh, where two misunderstood creatures cross a gulf of mutual incomprehension to grow together.

Now several years have passed and it’s looking more like How to Train Your Dragon was a turning point for Dreamworks. Even though they aren’t always good, Dreamworks has aspired to deeper thematic resonance such as suggesting the complete absence of God in a children’s story about Santa Claus and Jack Frost. Now, with How to Train Your Dragon 2, I had to wonder how screenwriter and director Dean DeBlois would handle the increased expectations that the original film engineered and subsequent Dreamworks productions improved on.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (HtTYD2 from this point on) is not the surprise delight the original was. But HtTYD2 is a strong sequel in a franchise that could have easily substituted wacky antics in for measured growth. If the franchise will continue being a success this will be the best approach. After all, there are only so many ways fart jokes can be incorporated into dragon breath, but the continuing saga of Hiccup the child into Hiccup the leader is one I can invest in for years.

HtTYD2 has effective set-pieces that continue to evolve the universe with its own set of interesting traditions.

HtTYD2 has effective set-pieces that continue to evolve the universe with its own set of interesting traditions.

It’s that sense of growth that is HtTYD2’s greatest strength. Even with Dreamworks’ competition, and I’m thinking primarily of Toy Story here, there’s little aesthetic change between installments be it in an overall style or with the characters. One of the delights in HtTYD2 is seeing how the characters have changed, like the increased number of accessories of Hiccup’s artificial leg has or how the ragged and ill-fitting clothes of the first film have been replaced with a snug suit of armor modeled after his new dragon friends. The design of Hiccup’s home village is a wonder as well and there are many visual jokes told through the way the dragons are integrated into the various professions, such as the fat dragon who the villagers rotate when it needs to ignite a furnace.

The advance in time also allows for a continuation of Hiccup’s coming-of-age in a different way. He’s found his purpose in life and he’s uncertain how he can incorporate that into leadership for the village. It’s refreshing that this doesn’t result in a recycling of the conflict between Hiccup and his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) and instead has him exploring the lands outside his Viking homeland, which offers more opportunities to let the art team create some beautiful vistas. This approach opens up the opportunity for some fun hormone-fueled storylines as well with Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) exploring her blossoming attraction to boys with a humorous, slow-motion, and constantly shifting definition of what’s attractive or not.

What HtTYD2 also carries from the first film is a superb sense of economy when it comes to sound and dialogue. DeBlois’ screenplay lets the pleasure and danger of the visuals speak for themselves more often than not and does not punch up dramatic confrontations with unnecessary words. One of the most touching moments of the film comes from the reunion between Stoick and his long-missing wife Valka (Cate Blanchett). Her dialogue could be read as a bit meta as she keeps telling him that she’s expecting the argument around her disappearance but DeBlois wisely keeps Stoick quiet and lets his overwhelmed relief at seeing his wife again speak instead.

Frequent action in the foreground and background keep the film lively without becoming too cluttered or difficult to follow.

Frequent action in the foreground and background keep the film lively without becoming too cluttered or difficult to follow.

HtTYD2’s sense of quiet continues along with the superb dragons, who showcase even more personality than they did in the first film. One of the greater joys in the film is watching the background to see what everyone is up to. DeBlois’ animation team did not save themselves work and there are usually several planes of action going on as dragons play or duel in the background even in casual scenes of conversation. The only shame is that since the drama is more focused on the ground relationships than what is going on in the air that those once wonderful scenes of flight are merely pretty this time around. HtTYD2 does not have that moment where the miracle of flight feels like anything more than a new convenience for the Hiccup’s community.

The better-formed drama of HtTYD2 unsuccessfully ties into a less satisfactory conflict. Villain Drago, while voiced with gusto by Djimon Hounsou, is introduced about 2/3 of the way through the film. Drago’s introduction comes after the family drama, Hiccup’s further training issues, and another comic relief villain has run his course. It’s not that HtTYD2 is overstuffed, but the last half-hour resolving Drago’s threat to the town doesn’t tie in very well to any of the plot threads. Drago feels like an afterthought, introducing a villain for the sake of conflict and not offering an opportunity to grow any of the characters.

Because Drago takes up so much of HtTYD2 without having much to do with the film his thread ends up deflating the final product. HtTYD2 had enough drama and action through the progression of Hiccup and his family, which is what made HtTYD so wonderful. As it stands very good is still a rare metric to reach, and I wouldn’t trade away those adorable dragons tussling like kitties.

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Tail - HtTYD2How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Dean DeBlois.
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, and Djimon Hounsou.

Posted by Andrew

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