Starring: Jay Baruchel (This Is the End), Gerard Butler (300), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty), Craig Ferguson (Kick-Ass), Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), T.J. Miller (Cloverfield), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Kit Harington (Game of Thrones)
Writer/Director: Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch)
Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
Release Date: 13 June (US), 11 July (UK)
How to Train Your Dragon was a humungous step forward for the folks at DreamWorks Animation. After years of providing Shrek and Shrek-like films, the studio proved they could make a more mature animated film that was more about heart than pop culture references. With that said, I was immediately wary when they announced a sequel. The first film worked so well as a self-contained story, and continuing with no purpose other than the allure of the box office is never how a good sequel comes to fruition. But after finally seeing the finished product, my heart rests easy. How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t just meet expectations. It defies them.
The film’s story avoids the easy option of just doing the same film again but bigger, and does what all great sequels are supposed to do: widen the scope of the world and bring the characters on a raw emotional journey with high stakes. Unlike most sequels that play it safe, How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes some pretty big risks with the storytelling, making for a much more thrilling but also darker film. The Empire Strikes Back constantly popped in my mind as the film went on, but in very much a good way. But with that said, the film never looses the heart-warming charm that made the first film so endearing. The humour remains strong but avoids being too cartoony, and that grimmer tone just makes the triumphant moments that much more powerful. The pacing is expertly balanced, moving from character building to action with nary a fault, and because of that there is never a single dull moment to be had. In a nutshell, How to Train Your Dragon 2 does everything a sequel is supposed to do to near perfection.
If I had any fault with the first film, it was that the character of Hiccup was somewhat of a generic kids’ film protagonist: the clever but bumbling neurotic that doesn’t fit in and no one listens to. The character ultimately works thanks to his relationship with his dragon Toothless, and this time around Hiccup has far more to worry about than fitting in. The film is ultimately Hiccup’s coming-of-age story, and the arc plays out beautifully thanks to the strong writing and Jay Baruchel’s vocal performance (on a side note, it was amusing to finally see a film call out Baruchel on his odd voice and mannerisms). America Ferrera gets a little more to do as Astrid than she did in the original, but like with the last film I wish there was more time to develop her and Hiccup’s relationship. Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig all return also, and whilst they basically do the same shtick they were doing last time, it still feels fresh enough and they remain a fun presence; similar comments can be made about Craig Ferguson’s Gobber. Gerard Butler’s Stoick remains a gruff but appealing character, but is also allowed some true emotional moments as well that round him out in many ways. On the new blood front, Cate Blanchett’s Valka feels like a strong addition and provides a lot of the whimsical moments the series does so well, whilst Kit Harington as Eret is a somewhat inconsequential but fun character to add to the mix (and also a role that finally allows Harington to play someone other than Jon Snow or characters exactly like Jon Snow). Where the film falters somewhat is in the villain Drago, played by Djimon Hounsou. Whilst there is a little bit more to him than just “evil madman who wants to take over the world”, it still never feels quite enough to make him feel like more than just a menacing face.
The first How to Train Your Dragon was lauded for its beautiful animation and incredible use of 3-D, and the same can be said for its sequel. The quality and fluidity of the animation is awesome, rendering this beautiful and varied world in much better detail. Whereas the first film was about impressive fire effects, this one animates water, ice and snow to almost photo-realistic levels; whenever a character isn’t directly on screen, you could mistake some of the environments for reality. The 3-D pops just as much as the first, making those flying sequences just as exhilarating as you remember. The production design remains strong, especially in all of the imaginative designs of the new dragon species, with both them and the locations having a very strong Miyazaki influence to them. Finally, John Powell’s score is just as excellent as his work on the first, providing strong retoolings of the original’s themes as well as some great new pieces.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is exactly the kind of sequel you want but rarely ever get. The story never feels like a rehash and crafts a narrative that builds upon the strengths of the original, expanding this tale of a boy and his dragon into something far more spectacular. The characters are as endearing and memorable as ever, the action sequences are packed with energy and imagination, and the animation quality is easily the best DreamWorks has rendered to date. Aside from a somewhat weak villain and some minor niggles not worth mentioning, this is everything you want from a sequel, an animated film, and just an all-round great film in general. Ultimately, I think the reason both How to Train Your Dragon films work so well is that they’re not just films for kids. They’re films that anyone can enjoy for all the right reasons, and I think both of them are strong enough to become timeless classics that will be enjoyed for many generations to come.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10