Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)- A Matured Continuation of the Fantasy Franchise that Showcases State of the Art Animation and Genuine Character Heart

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2A majority of family centered films these days rarely explore the aspect of real consequence or fragile loss as they have done in the past with the likes of Disney’s The Lion King or most Miyazaki pictures mostly because the social environment now created by parents, teachers, and administrators demands everything to be pandered to unrealistic and heightened sensitivities. Though this quality has only been a recent development for the usually complex character stories out of Pixar (an unfortunate devolution to be sure) it has been a consistent quality in most DreamWorks Animation efforts including the visually riveting How to Train Your Dragon. The first installment of How to Train Your Dragon was one of the more fully realized animation efforts out of DreamWorks thanks to the talents of Lilo & Stitch creator Dean DeBlois who gave the fantastical Viking tale of a boy and his newfound friendship with his dragon an undeniable heart. Certainly the first film never expanded beyond superficial character archetypes and didn’t really have a consequential antagonist to give the film a proper direction but it made up its faults with humor, stunning 3D animation, and the foundation of a friendship we hoped to see continue. With the return of DeBlois in the writing/directing chair behind the sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2 we see an intended desire to bring a touch of darkness to the story as the we move beyond the initial world of Berk bringing more threats, more challenges, and even some genuine heartfelt loss. Citing the inspiration of The Empire Strikes Back DeBlois heightens the stakes facing the young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless as the film digs deeper into its established characters exploring adult worthy themes ranging from the responsibilities that come from becoming a man and introducing obstacles that challenge a friendship’s connected bonds. Despite some occasional weak moments How to Train Your Dragon 2 becomes a sequel at least on par with its predecessor if not more refined due to its continuity in bringing a grander 3D animation experience coupled with some humorous, heartfelt moments between Hiccup and Toothless that get more and more genuine the longer they’re on the screen together. DeBlois has given us a sequel that tries to expand on its foundation instead of taking the easy route which in its ambition results in an animation film that indeed gives family audiences what they’re expecting from their dragon adventure with an unsuspected addition of thoughtfulness.

Coming into How to Train Your Dragon 2 disconnected from the events of the accompanying television series won’t necessarily be a problem because the script written by Dean DeBlois efficiently catches the audience up with the state of Hiccup’s (Jay Baruchel) relationship from everyone to his loyal dragon Toothless, his tom boyish girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and his now pleased but still demanding father Stoick (Gerard Butler). How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens up with Hiccup and Toothless venturing outside of Berk in the process of making a map of worlds beyond their own when they encounter dragon hunters who work for an evil dragon lord named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who subdues dragons violently and uses them for his imperialist army. With Berk divided on how to handle Drago, with Hiccup urging for a communication olive branch and his father Stoick immediately preparing for war, Hiccup makes his own way towards Drago only to stumble upon a rebel dragon keeper outsider who turns out to be Hiccup’s lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) (don’t spoiler me, it’s in the trailer). DeBlois has grown closer and closer to the material over the seven years he’s been part of the How to Train Your Dragon adventure and it’s clear his script understands the nuances, the subtleties, and the developed relationship between Hiccup and Toothless as their animated presence becomes accessibly real especially when Drago presents a challenge of nature over nurture. Because DeBlois insisted on keeping Empire Strikes Back in his mind while writing How to Train Your Dragon 2 there’s a persistence in darkening the subject matter sometimes to the point of either being preachy or a tad rushed but these moments are seldom to be seen throughout the script. How to Train Your Dragon 2 showcases a rarity of capturing genuine emotions and though it might be partially attributed to the actors who have been part of the adventure for so long we still can give credit to DeBlois for his writing and his understanding of the world and the characters. Whether it’s Hiccup entrusting Toothless to catch him during their solo flight experiments or Stoick serenading his lost wife Valka the moments have an authenticity to them that expands on the foundation of the first film. The script utilizes its familiarity with the characters to thematically tackle some complex character dynamics from the testing of friendship to the acceptance of loss to the perpetual cycle of violence based on misunderstanding making this a sequel that sees positive results in taking narrative risks.

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One of the obvious strengths of the first How to Train Your Dragon was the enveloping 3D animation that not only created a vibrantly colorful fantasy world but it naturally immersed you into the awe inspiring vastness through the atmospheric flying sequences and the incredible amount of detail in the creatures, the humans, and the animated designed sets. This artistic aspect of the first film continues in How to Train Your Dragon 2 but in an almost grander scale where DeBlois and his animation team ascribed to the bigger is indeed better philosophy. Apparently DreamWorks along with DeBlois and the animators rebuilt their entire animation infrastructure from the Emo system to the Premo system to support the high intensity vision that was imagined for the expansion of the How to Train Your Dragon universe and it certainly shows in its extensive uses of detail in numerous dragons and the colors of the environments surrounding them. Out of all the DreamWorks animation films How to Train Your Dragon always outshined the others in its fully committed fantasy world that really put to shame relatively good looking animated films such as the Kung Fu Panda films and the Shrek franchise but now the sequel has upped the ante to an even higher degree of animation quality. Because of this newly used system everything feels enhanced especially in the epic dragon battle sequences between two giant ice breathing dragons while also supporting the quality of detail in all of the individual dragons that fly around them and under them. It’s not only the quality of how the animation looks but also in how it’s used because DeBlois understands the potential thrills that can be obtained with the invention of fictional technologies such as Hiccup’s fire sword or Hiccup’s personal flying apparatus allowing him to fly next to Toothless and not always on him. DeBlois’s direction is guided by his personal relationship with the material and through that everything from the emotional connections of the characters to the thrilling animated action sequences gets heightened in believability. This time around it isn’t just the inventive animation that makes How to Train Your Dragon a worthwhile watch but it’s also because of how Deblois constructs and executes his emotional and thrilling sequences both with a great attention in detail and a genuine heart at the center.

There’s no doubt that the real heart and soul to the character Hiccup and how natural he appears on screen in his personality, actions, and choices stems from actor Jay Baruchel and his deep connection with the character over the last seven years voicing him for two movies and two full seasons on the animated show. Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is definitely on the cusp of becoming a true man worthy to rule the land of Berk and Baruchel explores Hiccup’s self-doubts, vulnerabilities, and also his perpetual use of sarcasm to offset those weaker aspects of his character. Because Hiccup seems plausibly real as an animated character the entirely manufactured relationship he has with a mute dragon is executed in part through animation expressions but mostly through Baruchel’s ability to make it seem real in his voice acting inflections. Not all of the characters have this depth in the sequel, such as America Ferrera’s take on Astrid but that’s mostly due to the fact that she was written as a tertiary character where her and Hiccup’s relationship isn’t explored (most likely a huge part of the TV series). The same could be said of Gerard Butler’s Stoick who has always come off as an animated cliché as the demanding Viking father but fortunately gets some deeper moments that the script thankfully allows his character to explore and have an important act in Hiccup’s character development. Cate Blanchett as Hiccup’s lost dragon keeper mother Valka has the softness of a mother but also demonstrates in her voice a fierceness that definitely defines her character that tries to balance caring with true survivalist conviction. Djimon Hounsou as the villainous Drago gives an effectively evil performance in his deep voice as a character that is physically damaged but more importantly morally damaged in his refusal to heal. Though this villain is a bit flat in his goals and intentions (a minor fault of the script) Hounsou gives a consistently commanding voice performance that makes the deadly consequences the character brings a thoroughly felt reality. All of the other characters are often times an overabundance of comic relief characters from Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse that surprisingly work more often than not considering how tiring it can be to hear them all try to one up each other when they aren’t obviously taking their voice over roles for granted. This doesn’t really matter because the side characters aren’t necessary to the character arc story being told since Hiccup is the only one who essentially needs to grow and he does so with the devotion and understanding from his voice over inspiration Jay Baruchel.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of those rare animated sequels that avoids the traps of most animated production house production line sequels because it clearly has a matured intention to its creation instead of just a purely monetary incentive to keep making more and more of the same thing. The ambition to introduce darker themes and genuinely felt character challenges stems from the connection that writer/director Dean DeBlois has with the material, his actors, and his artistic foresight in expanding on a story instead of casually continuing one. While there may be a few stray moments in How to Train Your Dragon 2 those are rare and easily forgotten as the story unfolds with a natural pacing that is accompanied by incredible animation that showcases colorful creatures, detailed environments, and palpable heartfelt connections. If Deblois was aiming to continue the How to Train Your Dragon banner with a devotion to utilizing the darkened themes of The Empire Strikes Back then he has certainly picked the right inspiration to follow and successfully matures his material with that source as an inspiration. Though constantly referencing one of the greatest sequels of all time as your inspiration might give people the wrong expectation of quality it’s safe to say that How to Train Your Dragon 2 not only lives up to the expectation audiences will have from their experience in the first one but it appropriately gives you a bit more by exploring mature themes and complex character struggles that most family films tend to avoid these days.

Grade: B+

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