|The RSPCA should really have a word with the people of Berk about their treatment of sheep...|
*This review contains major spoilers. We find that a lot of the main talking points for HTTYD2 involve discussing the film in depth, so if you haven't seen it yet, don't read any further! Beware spoilers!*
Back in 2010, DreamWorks released a true gem of modern animation; it was only by the bad luck of it being released the same year as Pixar's Toy Story 3 that the film didn't get awards left, right and centre. That film, of course, was How to Train Your Dragon, the touching, exciting and epic story of young Viking Hiccup and his bizarre choice of best friend - a fire-breathing Night Fury dragon, named Toothless. And there has been a phenomenal amount of hype surrounding the much anticipated sequel, which has been playing in America for a few weeks now (Munir has actually already reviewed the film for this site here), and has been previewing on select days in the UK, ahead of a general release on Friday. So, here's a second A113Animation review of How to Train Your Dragon 2 - and I also really rather liked it.
The first film was directed by Lilo & Stitch directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, but with Sanders co-helming last year's The Croods, DeBlois nabs solo credit for Dragon 2. And he handles it with ease. The director crafts a story that expands on the world created by the first film, fleshing out some of its existing characters and bringing more in. And of course John Powell is back to provide an exhilarating and pulse-pounding score to accompany all the swooshing and soaring.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 picks up 5 years after the first film, which ended with Hiccup missing a leg, and the Vikings of Berk living harmoniously with their new dragon pets. The sequel starts off by showing us just how swimmingly things are going - with what's the first of many scenes of poor old sheep being terrorised by the dragon-riding Vikings! (Seriously, that was my main takeaway from this film. These people really hate sheep!) Then we switch to essentially the scene we saw in the first teaser trailer, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) riding Toothless through the sky and then trying out his own little flight suit that he's built into his Inspector Gadget-like outfit. It's one of many thrilling and viscerally exciting flight sequences in the movie.
We then find out Hiccup has been exploring (and practising his hair-swooshes) in the intermediate five years, plotting a map of the world as he finds it. In his travels, he comes across Eret (voiced by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington), a cocky grunt for the film's big bad, dragon hunter Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). That sets the stage for the major battles of the film, but the major emotion of it comes from Hiccup's next find: his long-missing, presumed-dead mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). From here, it's a story of family reunions, impending war and a ye olde tonne of awesome flight and battle scenes!
And, boy, those action scenes really are something! The first Dragon had lots of exciting and fun flight scenes, and a big battle scene at the end, but Dragon 2 is stuffed full of superlatively exciting and impressive scenes that trump all those in the first film without exception. The battle about 40 minutes from the end - involving two giant dragons, armies of vikings and dragon hunters, close-quarters fights between the exceptionally scary villain (Drago) and Stoick, and so very many dragons - is, without exaggeration, Lord of the Rings-level in terms of its superb spectacle and perfect execution. The film would be well worth seeing for the action scenes alone!
Yet, despite all the good, I did have a few problems with How to Train Your Dragon 2. I liked Valka as a character, but the story surrounding her felt a bit contrived and poorly explained, to me. She kept saying "I'm so sorry for leaving, Hiccup. I thought about coming back but thought it was for the best that I didn't," but gave no bloody reasons for why she thought it was for the best! There are rationalisations to be made that she felt this new obligation to helping the dragons, and knew her husband's deep-rooted hatred of them - but surely she should have more allegiance to her infant son than to some random dragon she just met? She's just kind of a crappy mother, I guess... All the mother stuff also quite frequently made me think of Pixar's Brave (ironic, given that that was a film that repeatedly reminded me of HTTYD), a film which I think handled the matter quite a bit better...
In terms of sheer size and spectacle, there's no arguing the fact that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of the best films in years! But in terms of the quieter moments, in terms of the emotional heart of the film, I definitely preferred the first film to this one. Don't get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed HTTYD2, I just think the first film kind of has it trumped when it comes to the actual story.
The reason I think I preferred the story of the first film is that that was essentially a story about the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, bringing in all sorts of different strands: Hiccup's relationship with his father, his place in the community and his budding romance with Astrid (America Ferrera). Whereas in HTTYD2, that inter-species friendship seems to be playing second fiddle to the relationship between Hiccup and his mum. That still packs a lot of poignancy (despite my aforementioned gripes with the Valka aspect of the film), just not as much, I don't think, as the first film. That said, the action scenes are out of this world, and the emotional pay-off with Stoick's (Gerard Butler) death and the rare bravery, darkness and complexity of the film at that juncture more than redeems my minor qualms. The story may not be as solid, but this is all-in-all a darker and more exciting film than the first.
Special praise should go, too, to the ending. The aforementioned big battle involving the two Alpha dragons was such a breathtaking slobber-knocker that it seemed the film was about wrapped up there, and then it's matched by the equally-impressive and rather clever final battle that sees Hiccup take the leader role he didn't want earlier in the film, and Toothless be exceedingly badass. In fact, the entire last half of the film was fantastic! (Although, the very last bit, with all the dragons bowing down to Toothless seemed a little bit Lion King-y...)
So, it's not a perfect film - I had my gripes (another one of which is the general design of DreamWorks' human characters - why, for instance, does Eret look directly ripped from The Croods?) - but it is a really bloody good film. In fact, the hallmark of a particularly great film, for me, is when I'm keenly aware of its shortcomings, but don't care much at all because of how immensely immense its strong points are. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one such film. Munir said that it is "not only the best animated film of the year so far, it is the best film of the year." Now, I'm not quite sure I can agree with that (I'd say the film is about on par with The Lego Movie as the best animated film of the year, though), but that's really only because of how great a calibre of animated movie 2014 has had! So bravo, DreamWorks! I have high hopes for How to Train Your Dragon 3.