In preparation for my viewing of How to Train Your Dragon 2, DreamWorks Animation's follow up to their 2010 critically lauded feature, How to Train Your Dragon, I dusted off my DVD copy of the first film and popped it into the player to give myself a refresher course on the world I was about to revisit. Admittedly it had been a while since I'd seen the first film, and I didn't remember much about it except that I enjoyed it quite a bit. The story followed a young Viking boy named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who lives on a craggy island named Berk where his fellow citizens specialize in hunting dragons, the local pest. Hiccup is ostracized for not being particularly adept at this skill, especially by his father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) the village chief. Hiccup manages to take down a dragon on his own, but before he can deliver the killing blow he takes pity on the beast and, over the course of the film, learns that dragons are actually misunderstood and can be trained and made allies.
He trains his dragon, becomes the hero, is accepted by his father and peers, and even gets the girl. The end. I still think the movie is good, but I have to say that it has aged a little in four years. The animation was the first thing I noticed had aged, and while never bad, the leaps and bounds the process of bringing these pictures to life has gone through draws attention to its flaws. Characters' expressions can be lifeless and stiff, and sometimes they moved more like marionettes than people. The story, while still very engaging, is nothing we haven't seen before. It's your typical underdog story where a hero no one believes in must face insurmountable odds to win the acceptance of his peers. It worked fine for what it was, but it's ground we've tread many times before.
Well this sequel takes the story (and the animation) into completely different territory. Set five years after the events of its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sees a completely new version of Berk. Dragons are no longer a plague, but beloved companions. People race them, customize saddles for them, and even built a village wide fire fighting system to compensate for the occasional flaming belch. Hell, Berk has its own version of a "crazy cat lady," except her cats are scaly and can fly. Hiccup is no longer the village outcast, having grown into a confident and capable young adult whose bond with his dragon companion Toothless has grown even stronger. He spends his days exploring and mapping the world he and his people could never see before the training of dragons. But on the horizon a new threat looms, and to take it on Hiccup will have to put his convictions on the line, as well as accept the help of an old face from his past.
Every aspect of the original is improved upon in this outing, and very little feels warmed over. Character arcs and relationships are continued and evolve, rather than reset as many films in the genre tend to do. Hiccup has ceased being a timid teenager who could barely lift a shield. Now he's sky diving off the back of his dragon and wielding a flaming retractable blade (clearly writer/director Dean DeBlois is a fan of a certain galaxy far, far away). His skills with dragons have also improved, with him controlling the beasts better than Cesar Millan controls dogs.
His relationships have also been given an upgrade with Hiccup now complaining about too much affection from Stoick, who is so proud of his son that he cannot wait to pass on the torch of village chief. His relationship with Toothless is still the most important, and their interactions are definitely some of the best moments in the film. Anyone who has owned a pet will relate right away with the bond these two share. There is also his relationship with Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett), one of the new characters, who has ties to both Hiccup's and Stoick's past. I won't spoil it here (though the trailers already did) but it is truly emotional. His relationships with these three drive the story, and are given equal time to develop. Of note is how DeBlois handled Hiccup's relationship with Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera). Romances have a tendency to soak up too much of a movie's run time, but like with its predecessor, this is wisely placed in the background with some cutesy moments here and there to remind you they're a couple without distracting from the plot. It's subdued but still feels natural and is quite refreshing.
The other characters aren't given much to do, but they still have their moments to shine. Some of the funniest scenes belong to returning characters Snotlout, Fishlegs, and Ruffnut (voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig, respectively), as the two young men seek to woo the young woman, who herself is pining after new character Eret (voiced by Kit Harington, showing more emotion in this two hour animated feature than he's shown in forty episodes of Game of Thrones). Craig Ferguson returns to voice Stoick's best friend Gobber and he too gets some funny moments (as well as a "controversial" one that is such a non-issue that I'm not even going to dignify it by explaining further). Djimon Hounsou has a great turn as the film's primary antagonist, the fearsome Drago.
The animation is spectacular. Character's movements are a lot more natural, and their facial expressions are much more emotive (still can't escape that Uncanny Valley though). The world itself is breathtaking, ranging from lush and vibrant in some areas, to cold and desolate in others. Combine that with breathtaking action and flying sequences, as well as some well integrated 3D effects (this is one of the few movies I would recommend seeing in the format) and you've got one truly memorable feast for the eyes. There's a particular moment where Astrid is playfully teasing Hiccup for his exaggerated mannerisms when he speaks, which I took as an affectionate jab at the typical acting style of motion capture performers, who have to emote more with their bodies than their faces. It's such a clever and delightful nod to the men and women behind the scenes working hard to bring these pictures to life.
The film also boasts an amazing score by John Powell. His composition for the first film earned him an Academy Award nomination, and it looks like this one is going to earn him a second, if not a win. It soars, it thrills, it tugs at the heartstrings; this score is everything a movie soundtrack should be.
If I had any nitpicks about this movie it would be these two. While the voice acting is solid with everyone delivering good performances all around, I just don't know that I like Baruchel as Hiccup. He worked for the first movie's version of the character, a nebbish teenager who couldn't catch a break, but I found myself going "ugh" every time I heard his voice come out of the older Hiccup's mouth. It sounds a little too whiny for what the character was supposed to be at this point. The second nitpick would be the villain and his motivations. Hounsou's Drago is terrifying to be sure, but we never learn where he came from, or what it is he planned to do once he attained his goal.
But as I said, those are nitpicks and do not take away from how thoroughly enjoyable this film was. I'm going to just come out and say that this is one of the best films of the year so far, and anyone - be they child or adult - will find something to love about it. It's got amazing animation and visuals, a solid story, and great performances from its voice cast. If you have the time, go check out How to Train Your Dragon 2.