You loved How To Train Your Dragon. Or maybe you didn’t see it, even after all the buzz, nearly $500 million at the box office, and two Oscar nominations. Get out your asbestos, because here comes the second in the series! Is How To Train Your Dragon 2 worth date money, a babysitter, or a family night out?
Harness your cinematic curiosity or enthusiasm much like a dragon wrangler and fly to the nearest multiplex, because How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an unqualified triumph. It perfectly balances spectacle, depth and gravitas, humor and warmhearted charm. The audience is made to feel both through story and visuals as if it is soaring with the dragons. There will be those who will walk away numbering this movie among their favorite animated films. Its place on “Best of” lists for cartoon classics will only be further affirmed with time and repeated viewing. Let the scoffing begin by fellow critics and cartoon buffs. As with The Nightmare Before Christmas, this last statement will prove true in the end.
Perhaps one of the highest compliments any devotee of animation can offer is that a feature film has all the best qualities of live action yet interpreted through cartoon. The mistake or easy choice of studios is to support and release animated movies targeted largely to children, with their parents appreciating enough aspects of the experience to keep them bringing their progeny back for their next release. Thank the Norse Gods, How To Train Your Dragon 2 director Dean DeBlois had loftier aspirations, and with this story DreamWorks Animation took the higher, more sophisticated road.
It has been five years since peace has been made with the dragons surrounding the Viking village of Berk. All those of dragon riding age are partnered with their own fire breather, and all varieties are cared for lovingly from birth, treated as an integral and essential part of their little society. The son of village chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a young adult. He and his best friend Toothless, believed to be the last of a breed called Night Fury, fly far and wide to add incrementally to a world map Hiccup is creating. On his travels, young man and dragon encounter something that threatens the peace and the safety of all, both dragons and humans. The entrepid twosome, with the help of Hiccup’s young love Astrid (America Ferrera), a mysterious dragon rider, and their friends, attempt to figure out a way to bring peace to Berk and the dragon-loving world once again, but not before mighty challenges they must face and overcome.
DeBlois was co-director on the first film, and had a hand in its re-writes. In HTTYD2 he is going solo as both director and screenwriter. The entire scope of the tale expands in every way. All the characters are further developed and given more complicated personalities.
Several of those returning from the first film grow in depth considerably, especially Stoick and Hiccup, because the story is in part about finding a role in a family with the belief that destiny has something different in mind than how parents see it. Hiccup’s mother is introduced, and that relationship has history and complications, but plays a part in morphing his self perception.
There are three new characters, all voiced by A-list talents with huge individual fan bases, and they all add significantly to the story. DeBlois says when he was writing Hiccup’s mother Valka into the script, he imagined Cate Blanchett from the beginning, and you can clearly see her features reflected in the character design. Eret the dragon trapper, played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington who sports a decidedly working class accent, offers comic relief and a strong personal arc. He also offers a story bridge to the film’s villain, Drago, voiced by Djimon Hounsou, two time Oscar nominee for Blood Diamond and In America. DeBlois says as far as character design, he gave early concepts for this “stranger from a strange land” to three different visual development artists, and they all came up with the same idea. What Hounsou brings to the character is his beautiful vocal expressions, and his unplaceable accent. He could be from all places at once.
The best character, from the perspective of a movie fan who roots for strong female characters, however, is one that has no lines. It is the crone. She may elicit giggles with her passel of baby dragons that cling lovingly to her every appendage. DeBlois knows from history, however, that the crone holds the most powerful position in the village. There is a moment at the movie’s end where the entire village looks to her for acceptance and her approval. It is a small moment, but one that speaks to the specificity of characterization, and the pervasive respect this director gives the cartoon creations, both creature and humanoid, that populate the world of HTTYD2.
Many departments had a hand in the making of the film and should be proud of the inventiveness expressed and their combined technical and artistic achievement.
A masterful film artist friend, Bill Silvers ,worked in the art department as matte painter and contributed backgrounds and environments in several key scenes, which only adds to my relief at how marvelously the movie turned out. There have been some major advancements in animation technology since the first installment, and the new technology will bring anew the sense of wonder with which many of the audience associates HTTYD. Multiple new software programs are being used, which, like those at Disney, mean far more expressive and believable facial features.
It is also the first DreamWorks animated feature to use “scalable multi-core processing”, a technology they’ve been working on perfecting for years, which has to do with animators being able to see their evolving creations in real time, instead of having to wait hours for it to render. This also allows the many artists and computer designers to work simultaneously and see each other’s work, and that means more seamless collaboration. Silvers said to me, “it feels like the art department and the effects department always complimented each other on this film. That’s the best environment to make a great movie.” The audience can see all these enhancements onscreen in the way the human characters interact with each other and with the dragons, from inside environments that feel believable and real, no matter how fantastical they are visually.
The score by John Powell, who was Oscar nominated for the first film, adds a beautiful aural backdrop to the proceedings, and Jonsi of Sigur Ros assists by partnering with the composer with the joyful song “Where No One Goes.”
Director Dean DeBlois had said when he was offered the sequel to direct, he wanted HTTYD2 to be the second of three films. A life-long fan of Star Wars, he saw it as The Empire Strikes Back of the series. He has succeeded more than he can imagine. There is certainly expansion on the “hero’s journey” about which Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. There are touches that reference the world of Star Wars, such as a weapon of Hiccup’s invention, the Dragon Blade, that calls to mind a lightsaber. HTTYD2 also has a depth of heart and characterization, and a seriousness that connects so completely with viewers it’s hard to imagine the third film reaching this height. Though he doesn’t and can’t speak, Toothless, with his loyalty, sweetness, and tenacity, is the Yoda of HTTYD2. He is the true star, with his tongue hanging out inflight, the determination clearly visible on his ash-colored face, and all the other qualities that will be revealed by the movies’ end. In fact, all the dragons are charming in so many quirky unique ways, it was suggested by Cinema Sister there should be a book solely dedicated to all the breeds of dragon represented in HTTYD2.
Having been an animation gallery owner for 24 years, cartoon films, whether traditional or computer animated, really have to rise to a very high level of quality and invention to qualify as one of my favorites. After all, I know what went into the making of Fantasia, or Snow White, and the experimentation within those movies that moved the artistry of the medium forward. Walt Disney originally conceived his first full length feature as an artistic endeavor meant to be appreciated more by adults who were discerning cinephiles. It is a smart move that DeBlois embraced that approach for How To Train Your Dragon 2, which, although was appreciated by little ones as young as 4 in my screening, is really best for those more mature kids of over 8 years old. I would say that is also true for Fantasia and Snow White, so he is perfectly in sync with the best classics of animation.
Recent releases at DreamWorks have shown lackluster box office sales, and for good reason. HTTYD2 deserves the opposite fate. It is spectacular, and this critic would be thrilled if it shattered a few records at the box office this summer. Why should recognition of its greatness have to take place over time? May its beauty and delight be celebrated now.
To inspire him, Valka tells Hiccup he has “the heart of a chief, and the soul of a dragon.” May How To Train Your Dragon 2 similarly rule and soar.
5 out of 5 stars.