In 2010 no one saw the astonishing success of How to Train Your Dragon coming. Animators Dreamworks had long faced a perennial struggle to match rivals Pixar in creating family entertainment mixed with emotional heft that even the considerable might of the Shrek franchise couldn’t overcome. And yet a fantastical story about a Viking teen who befriends a fearsome dragon did just that and bagged almost $500 million worldwide in the process. Now, with a sequel that is again loosely based on Cressida Cowell’s books, Dreamworks are once again defying expectations by delivering a fulfilling follow-up that enthrals and gives closure whilst also establishing potential arcs for 2016’s big finale.
The sequel picks up five years after the events of the first film where much has changed on the tiny Viking island of Berk. Vikings and dragons now live in easy harmony and a thrilling opening sequence finds the islanders in the middle of a new sport that’s sort of like Quidditch only the competitors ride dragons and slam-dunk grumpy sheep instead of straddling broomsticks and getting brained by a bludgeon.
Hiccup (Baruchel), too, has undergone a dramatic makeover as director Dean DeBlois breaks the cardinal rule of animation by actually having his characters age. Now 20, Hiccup has flowing hair, a peach-fuzz jaw and a modified suit with wings that pop-out for free-flying. Like a leather-clad Pteromyini.
He has also come-along as an inventor, re-modelling Berk as a dragon-loving paradise – key features include well-stocked feeding stations and much needed fire-fighting mechanisms – and fashioned himself the Swiss army knife of prosthetic legs with three spring-loaded attachments.
One of the advantages of letting the characters grow up is that it allows them to enter a new phase of life where there are new issues and stories to explore, significantly reducing the risk of simply regurgitating the first plot over again. The crux of HTTYD2 is Hiccup’s search to find his true calling as he balances the weight of his father’s (Butler) expectations with his own dream of seeking-out new lands with Toothless. It’s a well-tested arc that’s sweetly handled by DeBlois and its easy relatability is part of what makes the series such an absorbing watch for all ages.
Much a Hiccup’s story revolves around his meeting Valka (Blanchett), a mysterious dragon rider who rescues dragons from other Viking tribes and has a strong link to Hiccup’s past. Valka struggles with a similar conundrum to Hiccup, having abandoned her family in order to protect them, and her shared empathy for fire-breathing lizards makes her feel like Hiccup’s kindred spirit. She’s vital in helping him understand who is really is as he is forced into action to save his tribe from vicious dragon tamer Bludvist (Hounsou), the Viking Blackbeard who controls his army by fear and a weird Neanderthal grunt and has his greedy little eyes on Berk’s budding dragon population.
What sets HTTYD2 apart from Dreamworks’ other animated fare is that every character is given a carefully considered backstory and motivation. Even a remorseless villain like Bludvist has an understandable, though in no way justifiable, reason for his actions. Such detailed characterisation is further helped in this movie by the adoption of the new Premo animation system. The human characters are so finely nuanced – you can see the muscles moving beneath their skin and the jowls wobble beneath the chins of stouter Vikings (sorry, Gobber) – that it is almost doing half the work for the excellent vocal cast in portraying emotion and desperation.
Visually the film is even more stunning than the first with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins serving as visual consultant to help make the vivid Nordic landscapes so beautiful. The flying scenes are some of the film’s most breath-taking; the shots of Hiccup and Toothless skimming the tops of clouds and swooping across the open seas are made all the more majestic by John Powell’s sweeping score.
It’s all part of DeBlois plan to up the scale considerably from the first film with Berk’s dragons meeting Bludvist’s army in an epic coastal battle that may seem predictable but features plenty of surprises and emotional gut-punches to be inextricably absorbing. He achieves this by centring the action on the human story and maintaining the first film’s a tilt-a-whirl of emotions, placating us with the adorable humour of domesticated dragons goofing-around in the background before diving into wrenching moments of heartbreak and despair as the two opposite sides of Hiccup’s life collide in tragic circumstances.
Unlike many sequels, which seem only interested in selling tickets for the next franchise instalment, How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages to whet viewers’ appetites for further adventures whilst also delivering on its main purpose of telling a fulfilling story. By turns this will make you laugh and cry, and feel breathless and elated. In short, everything a movie should be.
Runtime: 102 Minutes Genre: Animation/Adventure Released: 11 July 2014
Director: Dean DeBlois Writer: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Djimon Hounsou
Click here to watch the trailer for How to Train Your Dragon 2