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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dean DeBlois

The first How to Train Your Dragon was pretty much perfect: beautifully animated, moving, simple enough to be followed by children, but running deep enough to connect with adults. It set a bar so high that any sequel could, at best, only hope to reach it rather than surpass it. Four years after the first comes How to Train Your Dragon 2, gorgeously rendered, full of sequences that are alternately thrilling and moving, and almost as good as the original (seriously, it comes so close). Though it falls a bit short of perfection, I expect that it will emerge as the best movie of the summer and probably one of the best movies of the year.

Picking up five years after the events of the first film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 finds the Vikings of Berk and their dragons living together in harmony, the only cloud of the horizon coming from the expectation of the Viking Chief Stoic (Gerard Butler) that his son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), is ready to succeed him. Far from being ready or willing to take over the duties and responsibilities of a Chieftan, Hiccup wants to continue exploring the world with his dragon Toothless, creating a map of the heretofore unknown lands. Joined on one of his journeys by his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), they accidentally come across a ship of dragon trappers working for a warlord named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) who is building a dragon army. Escaping from capture, Hiccup and Astrid race back to Berk to warn Stoic but instead of agreeing to try to deal with Drago through diplomacy, as Hiccup wants to do, Stoic instead begins preparing for battle. In an attempt to avoid bloodshed, Hiccup and Astrid take off and "surrender" themselves to the dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harrington) so that he will take them to Drago.

Shortly thereafter Hiccup and Astrid are separated, with Astrid being taken to Drago along with the rest of the dragon riders - Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kirsten Wiig) - who tracked them to Eret's ship, and Hiccup being captured by a dragon rider named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who reveals herself to be Hiccup's mother and takes him to the icy dragon sanctuary that she has been calling her home for twenty years. Soon enough Stoic has tracked Hiccup to the sanctuary and the family is briefly and happily reunited until Drago arrives at their doorstep with his massive army, intent on enslaving all the dragons under Valka's care and then the people of Berk unless Hiccup and his parents can stop them.

Written by Dean DeBlois in addition to being directed by him, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is, by and large, a very strong work that finds a nice balance between breathtaking action sequences and character work that builds on the very solid foundation provided by the first film. It isn't without problems, the most glaring of which is Drago, who is the only character of color in the film and is depicted as a one-note, blood thirsty villain. Much has already been written elsewhere about how problematic this is, so I'm just going to acknowledge that this aspect is troubling and move on. Also problematic, albeit less so and not in as important a way as the issue with Drago, is the film's portrayal of Valka. While featuring in many of the film's most visually stunning sequences - from her introduction to the scenes at the dragon sanctuary and a flying scene in which she walks on dragons' wings - she ends up feeling a bit half-formed as a character. Missing for twenty years, she offers two different explanations for why she's stayed away, neither of which really stands up to scrutiny. To Hiccup she insists that she stayed away because she didn't think he would be safe if she returned, but... "safe" from what? That doesn't make any sense. To Stoick she claims that she stayed away because she didn't think he would ever change but, again, what does that even mean in this context? She wanted to save dragons and he wanted to kill them, so if she had returned and revealed that the dragon that spirited her away didn't kill her then... that would make Stoick want to kill dragons more? You know what probably made him really hate dragons? Spending twenty years thinking his wife had been killed by one. Valka's explanations are pretty lame and not very well thought out, which gives the impression that the character was sort of an afterthought.

Those issues aside, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a glorious film to behold. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is credited as a Visual Consultant on the film, and frame after frame is stunning both in terms of the quality of the animation and in terms of the depth of shots, with something always going on in the background while events unfold in the foreground. Narratively speaking, Hiccup remains a protagonist worth rooting for and investing in (as does Toothless), and that investment pays off emotionally as the film goes to some very dark places. That How to Train Your Dragon 2 is brave enough to go to those places, and to go there fully rather than in half-measures, is also to the its credit. Though it stumbles slightly in a few respects, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is still a hugely entertaining, emotionally resonant, and beautiful film.

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