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How to Train Your Dragon 2

D:Dean DeBlois / 102m

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington

Five years after the events of the first movie, the villagers of Berk are now co-existing peacefully with dragons.  While everyone has settled into this new arrangement, Hiccup (Baruchel) is still as restless and inquisitive about the world as he’s always been.  While out one day mapping new lands with his dragon Toothless, Hiccup is joined by Astrid (Ferrera) and together they encounter a dragon trapper named Eret (Harington).  He tries to capture the two dragons but Hiccup and Astrid escape; they also learn that Eret is trapping dragons for Drago Bloodfist (Hounsou) who is building an army of them in order to conquer the surrounding lands.  Returning to Berk, Hiccup tells his father, Stoick (Butler), about Drago.  Stoick adopts a siege mentality, telling Hiccup they must prepare for the worst, for Drago is not a man who can be reasoned with.  Hiccup doesn’t believe this, and with Astrid, goes off to find Eret, where they promptly surrender in an attempt to be taken to Drago.  However, Stoick, village blacksmith Gobber (Ferguson) and Hiccup and Astrid’s friends find and rescue them.

Hiccup and Toothless carry on with their search for Drago but are surprised by the appearance of a masked dragon rider, who captures them with ease.  The rider is revealed to be Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Blanchett).  She went missing twenty years before when Hiccup was a baby, and has been saving dragons the whole time, learning about them and keeping them safe in an island haven created out of ice by a giant, alpha dragon.  As mother and son reunite, Stoick tracks Hiccup to the island, while Astrid and friends abduct Eret and get him to take them to where Drago is readying his army of men and dragons, but they are captured and Drago learns of Berk and its dragons.  Stoick and Valka are reunited, but soon Drago attacks the island.  Valka and her dragons put up a strong resistance, but Drago has an ace up his sleeve: another alpha dragon that challenges and defeats Valka’s.  With Drago’s alpha dragon able to control all the other dragons, including Toothless, Drago moves on to Berk.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - scene

Expanding on the original movie’s themes of tolerance and understanding, How to Train Your Dragon 2 once again reveals that the biggest threat in a world full of dragons is Man himself.  With Berk now a harmonious place where dragons are part and parcel of daily life, Hiccup’s search for new lands and new experiences is a neat reflection on the movie itself, a way for the series – part three is due in 2016 – to beef up the drama and bring the wider world and all its complications back to Berk.  By broadening the movie’s horizons, the storyline attempts to become richer and attain a greater depth, and in doing so, rewards the audience at (almost) every turn. The introduction of two new protagonists, Valka and Drago, stops the movie from being a retread of the first movie, and allows How to Train Your Dragon 2 to work as a movie in its own right, while at the same time, pointing the way to a greater, three-movie story arc that has yet to play out fully.  With the reintroduction of Stoick, Gobber, Astrid, Snotlout (Hill) et al – old friends all of them – the mix of the familiar and the new is a (mostly) winning formula.

Of the two new characters, Valka is the more fascinating, an absentee mother who has greater empathy with dragons than with her son or husband.  Her abandonment of Hiccup when he is merely a baby is one of the movie’s more surprising scenes, a moment when a mother’s love for her son is outweighed by her horror at the injustice she sees happening around her.  With this back story fleshed out, the stage is set for some familial conflict, but writer/director DeBlois avoids any emotional confrontations, and instead opts for a reconciliation between Valka, Stoick and Hiccup that tugs very, very effectively at the heartstrings but fails to elevate the drama inherent in such a situation.  (With Valka’s past behaviour all forgiven in an instant, the viewer could also be forgiven for wondering why her absence was so important in the first place.)  In comparison, Drago is the more straightforward character, but carelessly so, his thirst for power so poorly referenced and explained that he becomes just another necessary tyrant for the hero to overcome, an almost stock villain complete with obligatory sneer and sharply angled features.  What could have been an interesting connection – Drago lost an arm to a dragon, Hiccup his foot – is brushed over as soon as it’s revealed, and even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the good that can come from a symbiotic relationship with dragons, maintains his conquering mindset.  It’s all too convenient, poor motivation that preserves the threat he represents, and the need for a large-scale, crowd-pleasing climax.

There’s a lot of rushing in the movie, a hurrying to get to the next scene, the next big animated showpiece, that stops How to Train Your Dragon 2 from being entirely successful.  There is one event that is so unexpected, and so dramatically effective that its subsequent glossing over is close to unforgivable – it would also have made for a better ending to the movie, as well as providing Part 3 with a strong opening.  It should have a lasting effect on several of the characters but instead is shunted aside in favour of the aforementioned climax (which ends the movie predictably and with a complete lack of resonance, despite Hiccup’s upbeat voice over).

In spite of all this, the movie is on the whole, an absolute joy to watch, the animation often breathtaking, and the warmth it carries over from the first movie working completely in its favour.  It’s good to see Hiccup and his friends so credibly older, their teenage years now left behind and their adult lives just beginning.  The animators have aged them well, and it’s a pleasure to be reacquainted with them.  The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is as moving as before, and so too is his emerging romance with Astrid: it’s gently done and handled with great affection.  Their friends all get their chance in the limelight, particularly Ruffnut (Wiig) who develops a major crush on the unfortunate Eret, and there’s sterling work from the sheep.  Back on composing duties, John Powell provides an emotionally rousing score that complements the material with assured ease, and in the director’s chair, DeBlois proves more than capable of helming a movie on his own, showing a flair for, and an understanding of, the material that bodes well for Part 3 (providing he gets someone to co-write the script with him).

Rating: 8/10 – missed opportunities aside, what’s on screen is bigger, bolder, and in places, more beautifully rendered than in the first movie; funny as well – and in all the right places – How to Train Your Dragon 2 may disappoint some younger viewers with its more adult themes, but this is animation of often stunning quality and with a top-notch cast who all know exactly what they’re doing.