June 13, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



How to Train Your Dragon 2

ANIMATED:

United States, 2014

U.S. Release Date:

2014-06-13

Running Length:

1:42

MPAA Classification:

PG

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

(voices) Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington

Director:

Dean DeBlois

Screenplay:

Dean DeBlois, based on the books by Cressida Cowell

Music:

John Powell

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


It's an axiom of the filmmaking industry that any time an animated movie shows a profit, it instantly becomes the foundation for a franchise. Unfortunately, when money drives creative decisions, it's like the cart pulling the horse. Take away the fabulous Toy Story trilogy and it's difficult to find an example of excellence in a second animated installment. To his credit, writer/director Dean DeBlois was cognizant of this problem when he agreed to make a follow-up to his 2010 hit, How to Train Your Dragon. So, instead of doing the easy thing and fashioning a retread, he elected to expand the scope of the world and characters and move into darker, more serious territory with How to Train Your Dragon 2. Although there are times when bits of the movie feel extraneous, the production as a whole comes across more like an organic extension of the original tale than something tacked on purely to score at the box office.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 transpires several years after the events chronicled in the first film. The Viking hamlet's culture has changed by this time with dragons not only being welcomed in the village but having their own specially constructed stable. The larger-than-life Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler) still rules, although he is trying to convince his recalcitrant son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), to take over the post of chief. Hiccup doesn't think of himself as a leader of men and would prefer flying around with his dragon, Toothless, practicing aerial maneuvers and mapping new territories. His girlfriend and likely future bride, Astrid (America Ferrera), thinks he underestimates himself.

While exploring the world, Hiccup discovers a group of "dragon catchers" who inform him that a warlord by the name of Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is assembling an army of dragons. Against the strict orders of his father, Hiccup decides to search for Drago, convinced that a civilized conversation will quench the enemy's thirst for conquest. Things don't go as planned, however, and Hiccup is waylaid by the fierce dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett), whose identity, once revealed, re-aligns the young man's priorities.

Top tier animated movies infuse their family-friendly material with resonant messages and How to Train Your Dragon 2 has things to say about loyalty, friendship, and family. This is a coming-of-age story for Hiccup, who is forced by circumstances to evolve as a character. The tone is darker than that of the original. While How to Train Your Dragon was generally a lighthearted fantasy/adventure (with a little romance thrown in for good measure), the sequel takes some chances and introduces ideas about mortality. There are plenty of action scenes, as there must be to retain the interest of those in younger demographic, but there's never an inevitable "everything's going to be all right" feeling.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is visually interesting but offers nothing groundbreaking. The animation is competent but not overwhelming. There's no moment of wonderment. DeBlois does a good job of world creation, although much of what he accomplishes here builds upon what he crafted for the first installment. This film provides a vast array of dragons, most of which are more cartoonish than ferocious, although the new "Alpha" species looks like a refugee from a Godzilla movie. The 3-D, as is often the case, is well-rendered but unnecessary. There's nothing wrong with it on a technical or aesthetic level but, in terms of what it delivers, it's not worth the surcharge.

This early in the year, it's hard to say whether How to Train Your Dragon 2 represents a highlight for 2014 big screen animation. It's not as sophisticated or absorbing as The Lego Movie, but it is a cut above the generic family-friendly material that permeates the medium. The level of violence in How to Train Your Dragon 2, which includes war and death, may make it too strong for the youngest children. With that caveat, however, it's a solid example of entertainment for parents and their offspring.

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