Hey folks, it's your old pal Ambush Bug. Though I haven't seen HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 yet, I tend to trust Dr. Karen Oughton's opinion. Doc Oughton caught the film from a London Advance Press screening and was kind enough to write up a review of it to share with all of us. Take it away, Doc!
Hello from Dr. Karen Oughton. Four years ago, a film about a misfit kid who befriended an infamous dragon took audiences by surprise with its stillness, tender heart and dramatic flight sequences. It spawned an Emmy award-winning cartoon series and now the sequel is about to come out in England. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a very, very different film to the first one and with that it is brilliant. Director Dean DeBlois has expanded the luscious but wide-eyed world of the first film. This is a story in which genuine self discovery takes place both for the characters and for audiences willing to engage with the complex human relationships on show as much as with the gorgeous scenery, cinematography and musical score.
We catch up with the residents of Viking stronghold, Berk, five years after the events in the first film took place. Dragons are now fully integrated into Berk life and the passage of time is shown in the characters themselves. Chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) now has strands of faded flax in his once auburn beard and his eyes are heavily bagged with the responsibility of the passing years. Hiccup, too, has… changed. As many of the commenters on Youtube will tell you, Stoick’s weakling son has, well, he got hawt. Sort of. Now 20, he’s 6 feet tall and clad in the black and russet leather version of what appears to be Viking biker gear, though he’s still as skinny as a twig and has obviously internalised how far he is from the Viking ideal, his physicality and movement showing he’s still something of a hiccup. He’s far from ready to fill his father’s shoes and so spends his time running away with his dragon, Toothless, their flight partially disguised as adventure. Until, that is, he stumbles upon Eret, a dragon trapper played with a notable warmth and nuance by Kit Harington. Eret is employed by one Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a mysterious figure who may change their world. Here endeth the plot overview.
Jay Baruchel is the shining star that makes HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 so brilliant. He manages the rare feat of making Hiccup utterly realistic and extremely down to earth despite being an extraordinary character in fantastical circumstances. Hiccup absolutely steals the show, whether whooping and rolling around in the snow with Toothless or allowing that slightly neurotic, nasal sarcasm to break down into an unsteady mechanical stumble towards meaning at moments of intense emotion. DeBlois’ direction does one thing that is still relatively rare to see in a family’s film in that it allows Hiccup to have fully expressed emotions including proper anger, something Baruchel pulls off particularly well and is ably abetted by very astute animation that shows Hiccup’s body responding in naturalistic ways. This is a character for whom coming of age is particularly trying because he has been so lauded in his homeland in recent years that he has become just a little bit intellectually conceited despite his good heart.
It is particularly important that Hiccup remains so empathic considering how the presentation of Toothless is changed for this film. Much has been made of the dragon’s catlike qualities, but here they are arguably rendered more as mannerisms than personality traits, with Toothless being brain short-circuitingly cute, but at times perhaps not on the same intellectual footing with Hiccup as he was in the first film. The bond seems more emotional. That said, pay close attention to the detail of this film as the finished product is slightly different to the trailers and shows that the dragons can still outplay the humans.
One of the criticisms leveled at this film is that it doesn’t present its female characters in the same powerful, feminist light that the first film did. The problem with this assumption is the idea that it should have to do so in the first place and what that means. The particularly interesting addition is Valka, or the homely and utterly normal ‘Val’ as she is periodically called by those who love her. She reflects a lot of the dragon traits back to the humans and her story arc is believable as she is shown to be courageous but not unrealistically strong, meaning her role in the fight sequences retain an edge of authenticity. This is important when you remember this is not a superhero movie but a film about climate-toughened people who live with impressive animals. Valka’s characterization comes with a slightly gruff, throaty delivery that does give the impression of one who has begun to lose her humanity and its positive attributes after spending so much time with the dragons, which adds an interesting dynamic to the power plays of the middle of the film. That said, she isn’t always as convincing in the first few scenes and Scott‘ish’ is an appropriate description for her distracting, meandering accent. Further on this theme, Dragon rider Astrid’s role has changed for this film and it is fair to say that she takes a less obviously physical role, but this works as America Ferrera’s characterization is a little thin on occasion.
We also see returns from the other kids, though (unlike in the television series) they are largely restricted to comic relief. Kristen Wiig somehow manages to make Ruffnut’s feelings towards Eret engaging, if the scripting and momentarily over-emphasized animation jar a little with the tone and staggering realism of the rest of the piece. Craig Ferguson and Gerard Butler also bring up the rear with solid performances, with Butler in particular bringing a huge sense of gravitas to his role as the beleaguered chief.
The animation for this film is simply stunning. While the depth, world building and flight sequences are expectedly eye-popping, it’s the intricate details that truly tell the emotional story here. The danger in situations is indicated not only by textures but the way that they are shot, with the sturdiness and security of the Berk life indicated by the sheer vastness of Stoick and the materials through which they have constructed their lives. Alternatively, a focus on the single, dirty fingernail of one Berk resident brings the entire concept of leadership from ceremonies and cheering and eternal happiness to scratching a living in the unforgiving climate that surrounds the Dragon 2 world. What’s more, a series of clever camera cuts shift the viewers’ point of view from empathy-inducing point of view shots to sections seen from slightly behind the action, preventing you from associating too heavily with individual characters and instead viewing particularly tense sequences as genuinely shifting emotional terrain. The effect is only compounded by the soundtrack, which ranges from amusing details in each sheep’s individualized bleats through to the score, composed by the returning John Powell. I defy you not to want to punch the air during the theme song, co-written with Jonsi – it is absolutely fantastic.
As its heart, this deceptively simple story about protecting your community has a lot to say about the nature of survival and trust. It is true that on the face of it the lead villain has little motivation other than the king of the world trope, but sometimes people just are that basic. It sometimes takes a fundamental experience or fear to create that sense of dictatorial compulsion. It is honest. The tricky part is depicting how that alters characters, and that is handled here with aplomb in a fantastic two-handed sequence.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a story about trust – in oneself and others. It is more than a children’s film, though children will love it, and adults should find enough of the emotional resonance that comes with experience to keep themselves thinking about it for a very long time. This is aside from reliving its sheer vitality. It’s still, at its heart, the story of a boy and a dragon, just this time it’s about taking trust and self belief forward. It’s utterly fantastic.