How to Train Your Dragon 2 is directed and written by Dean DeBlois and stars the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig, all of whom reprise their roles from How to Train Your Dragon. Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, and Kit Harington join the voice cast.
There is something very special about DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon 2, something that the likes of Disney, Pixar, Illumination, and Sony Animation would never even think about trying. How to Train Your Dragon 2 pushes the limits of its PG rating, and I mean pushes them to the very very edge of the top rail of the fence that divides PG and PG-13. The logical first guess of how so would be that the movie beefs up its violence by showing actual blood or have people getting burned alive. Okay, that burning alive guess might be more suited for R-rated territory, but hey, it's a movie that has fire-breathing dragons, so it has to be on the table. The correct answer as to how How to Train Your Dragon 2 tests the boundaries of PG is simply in its mature, unflinching story telling. This is not an animated movie that little kids can watch together during a Friday night sleep-over, and expect to be the adorable, visually spectacular experience that How to Train Your Dragon was. The visual spectacle is definitely there, but the newfound success that the characters enjoy in How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn't come without some unforgettable heartache, a true kind of heartache that is quite rare among mainstream animated films nowadays.
Explaining exactly what that heartache is would mean giving away hefty spoilers, and for films as magical as the How to Train Your Dragon films, giving away spoilers to those who have yet to see them would be a crime against all of animation. If you've seen the first How to Train Your Dragon, then you can safely expect the strengths of that film to carry over into this one: gorgeous animation (with the benefit of four years of animation upgrades) and high-octane action that is as exciting to watch as it is pretty to look at. I don't need to spend more time lauding what from How to Train Your Dragon also works in How to Train Your Dragon 2; this second installment in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy does just about everything you'd hope for in a sequel: extend upon the world established in the first installment, and at the same time, do something different.
It's definitely a different Berk since the first How to Train Your Dragon. Five years after befriending the Night Fury Toothless and helping dragons be welcomed into his home village, Hiccup is enjoying life, being with all his Viking and dragons friends, and spending time exploring uncharted lands. While on one such exploration trip with Astrid, the two discover an ice-covered fort, where they are attacked by a group of dragon-trappers. The group's leader, Eret (Harington), explains that they are capturing dragons and bringing them to a conqueror named Drago Bludvist (Hounsou), who is amassing a dragon army. Hiccup and Astrid escape the trappers and take the news of Drago back to Berk. Upon hearing the news, Stoick begins to prepare Berk for war. Hiccup, on the other hand, is convinced that he can talk Drago out of fighting a war, and so sets out with Toothless to find Drago.
- I'm actually glad to have seen How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World before doing my full review of this one, because I can say with more confidence that the darker, more serious tone is what sets this How to Train Your Dragon apart from the other two. Dean DeBlois is not afraid to show off the power of loss and death in his script, using them as driving forces behind certain characters' motivations and as a means to take the plot in a direction that isn't readily obvious at first. I don't want to say that young children should not be allowed anywhere near this film: it's that I have a hard time envisioning those same kids who all got amazed by the goofy dragons in the first film having the same kind of experience in a film that, while full of goofy dragons and goofy humor, still has room to tackle more mature themes that are more likely to strike an emotional cord in the older demographic. Honestly, I think How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the perfect movie for those who are about to enter or have already started their teenage years, because it's that point in their life where they start to see life in a more abstract way, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 very much so encourages abstract thinking. The first film thrived on humans and dragons learning to cope with one another. The second film addresses the new challenges awaiting its characters as they cross the bridge into adulthood, and for someone who is at a point in life where they themselves are learning those same sort of challenges, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is all the more appealing.
- Everyone in the voice cast is great, with a special shout-out going to Djimon Hounsou as Drago. Hounsou's booming, piercing voice does a wonderful job of injecting Drago with the life force that he needs to pass off as a villain worthy of the movie's darker tone. It's common in an animated movie for the villain to be slightly cartoonish, to have a veil of silliness to them as if it's the director's way of saying, "Hey, no worries. The villain wants to do bad things, but they're not really a bad guy." Drago is an exception to this; there is not a single drop of cartoonish buffoonery on him. He screams like a rabid animal and talks like a man that is seriously go to hurt you. The menacing aura surrounding Drago is unlike that of any other villain that DreamWorks has ever had in any of their animated features.
- The one place where How to Train Your Dragon 2 has some trouble is in its pacing, particularly near the end. The movie either doesn't give you enough time to fully soak in an emotional scene, or it keeps us in an emotional scene far longer than necessary. When it comes to the final climactic battle, the movie does next to nothing in terms of build-up, and it feels like we make a great, sudden jump from one emotional extreme to another.I get the movie wants to be fast-paced because dragons move at a fast pace, but it is a bit jarring to see characters get to where they need to go without any real idea about how much time has passed, as if the fictional world this movie takes place in is a lot smaller than it's letting on. Ah well, at least there's no way to criticize the movie for having too much "down time".
Since I typically end these sequel reviews by comparing said sequel to its predecessor, I suppose it's only fair to take on the question, "Is How to Train Your Dragon 2 better than the original?" I have no choice but to go with the cop-out answer here: it's neither better nor worse than How to Train Your Dragon, and that is a mighty achievement for a sequel, especially to one of a predecessor that is so highly regarded. How to Train Your Dragon 2 works splendidly because of its darker tone and Dean DeBlois' willingness to take mature risks with a premise that could so easily get away with being nothing more than adorable dragon entertainment. While there is still plenty here for children to enjoy, How to Train Your Dragon 2 intensifies the trilogy's more adult-oriented themes, and for a mainstream, family-oriented animation studio, that takes some dragon-sized guts right there.
Recommend? Yes. Be sure to have seen the first one.
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