I have to admit, I’m a little perplexed about my review for “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Here, let me let you in on my dilemma.
Initially, I walked out of the theater with a huge grin on my face. I thought this sequel to the Oscar-nominated original, up for “Best Animated Feature” in 2010- was everything I look for in a film. It had a steady pace and the characters were layered and likable. This was especially true regarding the lead character Hiccup (wonderfully voiced again by Jay Baruchel), who starts off as grating and whiny, but really grows on you as the film moves forward. Upon further review, I think his transformation is intentional.
The secondary characters were also a highlight, as they’re all given something important to do, instead of just providing cheap jokes or cannon fodder. This includes Hiccup’s young adult, Viking buddies Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), as well as his tomboyish girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). In addition, Drago Bludvist, the inherently evil adversary to Hiccup and company, was genuinely menacing (voiced by gravel-mouthed Djimon Hounsou) and utterly insane, which happens to be a pretty positive personality trait IF you’re a bad guy.
However, it’s Gerard Butler’s performance as Hiccup’s no-nonsense father Stoick the Vast that ends up stealing the show.
Even though I’m pretty sure that Vikings didn’t speak with thick Scottish brogues, Butler’s portrayal of Stoick otherwise seems authentic and shines through the screen. It’s extremely easy to become attached to this particular character. Actually, it’s extremely easy to become attached to many of these characters, which is why the narrative choices that returning screenwriter/director and Disney refugee Dean DeBlois (“Lilo & Stitch”) ends up taking are so brave and unexpected. However, despite all of the brilliant voice-acting, plot twists, and spectacular visual sense, I still have one little problem with this entertaining sequel. So, here goes.
Before viewing “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” I had yet to sit down and watch the first film in the series. Basically, I viewed “…Dragon 2″ as a stand-alone movie. So, therefore I was blown away by the impressive visuals and the epic scale that existed among these brave, dragon-riding Vikings from the city of Berk.
Like, I said, this was BEFORE I sat down and watched the first film.
I’m sorry to say, aside from a few character additions and some obvious variations on the plot, both films are pretty much the same. That being said, parents should be warned that this an extremely dark film, MUCH darker than the first, which might lead to some younger viewers or overly sensitive kids to have some fairly heinous nightmares after watching it. If you were to compare “How to Train Your Dragon” to “Star Wars,” the second film is equally as dark as “The Empire Strikes Back.” There is no shortage of violence, tragedy or even DEATH in the second film. Now, I’m not going to tell you WHO dies (that would be a spoiler), but I will say that it IS a game-changer.
Part 2 also introduces one new character to Hiccup’s world who turns out to be pretty important in the grand scheme of things. That would be Hiccup’s estranged mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett, who sounds very Emma Thompson-esque), who was apparently “eaten” by dragons when Hiccup was a wee baby. Obviously, the “eaten” part of the story wasn’t exactly true, but a dragon DID “take” her away and she ended up spending the next twenty-odd-years apart from her family and instead living on a secret, lizard-filled island as the Steve Irwin of dragon trainers. I must say her introduction into the film is one of the most beautiful, mysterious and breathtaking entrances I’ve EVER seen in a movie — animated or otherwise. Trust me, when you see Hiccup staring at a Jaws-like fin cutting through a set of fluffy clouds, you’ll begin to know what I’m talking about.
I can’t stress how gorgeous this film is. Usually animated films are more impressive in 3D than regular films are, but “How
to Train Your Dragon 2″ sets a new bar for 3D-animation. Period. The flight scenes, especially the one where Hiccup and Toothless (his Night Fury dragon pal) decide to mix skydiving with dragon-riding, are wondrous to behold.
These are NOT the “cartoons” that I grew up watching. Seriously, I mean no disrespect to 1980′s animators like Don Bluth (who also deserted Disney), but if you were to compare both films in the “Dragon” series to antiquated 2D flicks like “An American Tail,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” or (dare I bring up) “Rover Dangerfield,” let’s just say there’s been some slight technological advancements made in the last few decades. Well, I’m not saying that ALL 1980′s animated films are stinkers (“The Secret of NIMH” is one my all-time faves) OR that ALL recent animated flicks are fantastic (“Free Birds” was AWFUL… just AWFUL), but I am saying that the look of animated films has changed quite a bit. And with more films like “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” I’d have to say that (sorry Mrs. Brisby) the change is for the better.
My big dilemma regarding the writing of this review is this — If I were to give “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ a letter grade, per se, it would receive two completely different results. In essence, I would have to attribute one grade BEFORE I watched the first “How to Train Your Dragon” film and assign a totally different grade AFTER watching film number one. My reasoning for this is simple.
Before I saw part one I thought that “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ was one of the most adventurous, action-packed and original fantasy films I’d EVER seen. It made me feel like I was an 8 year-old kid again and I was watching “Clash of the Titans” (the 1981 Harryhausen version), “Krull” or “Dragonslayer” for the first time. I know, I know, all three films aren’t going to make any AFI lists anytime soon, but films that take me back to the “good ole days” of my childhood are A-OK in my book.
I have to say I was in awe of the picturesque set pieces and the sheer magnitude of the “alpha dragons” (two… count ‘em
TWO… gigantic ice-spitting dragons called Bewilderbeasts that battle one another in act three – trust me they’re awesome). I loved the brash story decisions made by DeBlois, along with the fact that he took a huge chance by breaking away from Cressida Cowell’s literary source material. Every single character fits into the story like an essential puzzle piece. Essentially there were no square pegs being hammered into round holes. Even characters that would’ve normally felt forced and unnecessary in other lesser films (like Kit Harington’s vocal turn as dragon trapper-turned-dragon lover, Eret) were charming and appropriate in this film. In other words, everything seemed to work extremely well and the film was almost perfect because of it. If someone were to ask me to grade “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ after leaving the theater, I would’ve given it an A, easily.
Let me remind you, that was BEFORE I sat down and watched the first film.
I’m not going to take up time and review the first “How to Train Your Dragon,” but I will say that I thought it resided quite a bit more on the lighter side than film number 2 did. The ending was a little heavy, but for the most part it was aimed towards very young kids so that they could enjoy it… and immediately go out and get their parents to buy them some plush dragon toys. Nobody said DreamWorks was stupid.
In my humble opinion, when the duo of DeBlois and longtime collaborator Chris Sanders (who both teamed up to make
the first “How to Train Your Dragon”) were together, they produced films that were definitely more kid-friendly. With Sanders leaving to make “The Croods,” it left DeBlois free to make the second “Dragon” film the way he REALLY thought it should be made. Ultimately, that became a film that was dark and had serious, concrete, adult tones.
However, there was still quite a bit of Sanders’ influence that existed in part 2. In actuality, DeBlois followed the template that was created in part 1 and just added those surprisingly adult plot elements and new enigmatic characters to top it off. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (since I’d give the first film a solid A-), it just makes part 2 a little bit less… ummm… great. There are just too many similarities between the two films for me to ignore them and this lowers the entertainment value of the second entry just a tad.
Therefore, the new grade for “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ goes from an A down to a B+, which is not THAT much of a difference, but it’s enough to warrant an explanation.