How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of the best sequels of this -- or any – summer.
Confidently executed and emotionally resonate, the sequel sees director Dean DeBlois takes a page from the Christopher Nolan/Dark Knight school. Like Nolan before him, DeBlois seemingly packs the film with every good idea he has – enough for two installments – as if this were the last time he’d ever get to play in this sandbox (despite that Dragon 3 is already in the works).
After stumbling out of the gate with a tacked-on set piece that uses a game of dragon Quidditch – and too much of DreamWorks’ patented, lowbrow shtick – to reintroduce its characters, Dragon 2 literally soars into action with the help of a flying Toothless and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). We quickly learn the latter has grown up to become both an expert glider and an adept handler of a lightsaber-like flaming sword – which factors into some inventive action scenes. Our now 20-year-old hero is in line to succeed his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) as chief of their Viking tribe, but Hiccup would rather explore what lies beyond the edges of his world before he must firmly take his place in it.
His plans as future ruler of Berk get sidelined, and tragically tested, as the new villain Drago (Djimon Hounsou) emerges, hellbent on hunting down dragons and using them as war chariots in his growing army. As Hiccup and his tomboy girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) uncover his plan, they also find evidence of a new dragon: the Bewilderbeast, an ice-breathing Alpha and would-be crown jewel of Drago’s collection.
“He who controls the Alpha, controls all dragons,” the movie warns, setting the stage for Hiccup and friends to battle Drago, with the help of Hiccup’s estranged mother (an underused Cate Blanchett) and her sanctuary of endangered dragons.
More plot-driven than the first film, Dragon 2 never lets the progression of story mechanics overwhelm the need for building that story upon emotional tentpoles -- which this sequel has in spades. The film aggressively uses its impressive dragon-flying action scenes to further the development of its characters, while simultaneously taking advantage of the larger scope a sequel affords. This isn’t a simple assembly-line installment; it’s an animated film that rivals its live-action counterparts with its approach to making something worthy of both the audience’s and the characters’ time.
As much as the movie gets right, it falls surprisingly short with its treatment of Hiccup’s mother, who’s suddenly thrust back into our hero’s life after a 20-year absence. The character virtually monologues her rationale for opting to take care of dragons instead of her own son, and the film misses an opportunity to mine some powerful drama as a result. (The scene where she reunites with her husband, however, is effective, with tear-jerking results.)
And where the first film refreshingly lacked a physical baddie, relying instead on themes like prejudice and fear to antagonize its heroes, Drago enters to mostly underwhelming results. Despite an attempt to flesh him out with a tragic backstory – he, like Hiccup, lost a limb to dragon-related causes – the character struggles to get past his one-note status.
The story’s greatest success centers on the fate of a main character. Using the first film’s maiming of Hiccup as a touchstone, Dragon 2 reasserts that heroic acts often carry significant, heartbreaking consequences – thus earning a very likable character’s death without shying away from the fallout. In doing so, the film treads without hesitation into emotional territory predominately occupied by Pixar, and thus elevates the quality of the DreamWorks brand to Pixar’s level of narrative excellence.
As with the first film, Dragon 2 signals yet another evolution for the studio. Who would have thought that a dragon-centric tale from the company that gave us too many Shrek and Madagascar rehashes could deliver one of the genre’s most inspired efforts?
The result represents such an emotionally honest commitment to storytelling – animated or otherwise – that future films should view reaching such a high bar as less the exception and more the rule.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens Friday nationwide.