HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: The voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou
MPAA Rating: (for adventure action and some mild rude humor)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 6/13/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 11, 2014
How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens in tranquility and comfort. The film really begins with a stunning image—the first of many here—in a shot that passes through stone guardians in the ocean to find the people of Berk, a Viking village impossibly sitting on a precipice at the edge of a mountain range along the sea, in harmony with the dragons they once feared and fought. Now those beasts are more than pets, even if they possess the best qualities of dogs and cats and have the added bonus of flight.
The town has become dragon-friendly with plentiful food, massage pits, and, of course, a primitive sprinkler system for any fire-breath mishaps. The dragons work alongside humans, lighting the forges that now aid in making saddles instead of swords. The people ride the creatures in a competitive race, which provides the first time we will get to see them in action, with the camera finding as much freedom as the dragons' wings allow. The only occupants of Berk with anything to worry about are the sheep, which have taken to walking hindquarter-to-hindquarter in a circle, so as to be able to keep a collective eye out for any death-from-above situation. There is a new status quo in the village and in this world as far as we have come to know it, and it is good.
We and the characters, though, don't know much about the rest of this world, and that's where the film's second sequence comes into play. It follows Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), the unlikely hero of the previous film, and his dragon, a rare Night Fury named Toothless, as they have taken to the sky in an attempt to discover what that greater world looks like.
Hiccup's dragon-riding skills have become more adept in the five years since his last adventure to unite humans and dragons, and his technical prowess has become even more imaginative. There's a moment during this quest when he leaps from the back of Toothless and begins to plummet toward the unforgiving water below.
We know it will turn out just fine for our hero, but just how he gets out of that situation is a pretty joyous moment of discovery. We're learning not only how far the character has come but also that the film, written and directed by Dean DeBlois (who takes the rein solo after having co-written and co-directed the first film), is ready to expand its limits. If a young man—unimpeded by having lost a leg, by the way—can now take the skies and fly with or without a dragon, what limits are there, really?
In just its second sequence, the film has made a multitude of promises: a more mature hero, a wider-imagining scope of setting, a greater sense of visual grandeur, and a tone that takes all of these into account. For the most part, it fulfills each and every one of them.
The story involves what's on the other side of Hiccup's latest find on his cartography tour to map out the rest of the world. We must again stop to take in the sights, for here is an expansive collection of forests, decorated by the bright orange canopies of its trees, serving as punctuation marks within an otherwise rocky terrain that leads to towering peaks of stone.
It's at this point that we remember how that money-making scheme of 3-D has become a creative roadblock. Whatever minimal enhancement to the illusion of depth that it could provide (an illusion that, of course, is completely redundant given the cinematographic ability to deliver it without glasses) comes at the price of greatly reducing the vibrancy of a film's color palette. This film is so rich in natural and otherworldly hues that, with the stereoscopic gimmick, we're left wondering how much more vivid they could be (This is the long-handed way of saying, as is usual in such cases, avoid the 3-D).
Beyond that landscape is yet another spectacle: a fort torn asunder by a great, pointed glacier. The occupants bring us back to the story. There are other dragon-riders in the world, and not all of them are as compassionate as the people of Berk. This group, which occupies that fort, is led by Eret (voice of Kit Harington). They capture dragons at the behest of Drago Bloodfist (voice of Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless warrior with plans to conquer dragons and humans alike. Hiccup's father Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), the chief of Berk who wants his son to follow in his footsteps, believes there is no redemption for people like Drago; Hiccup wants to find a peaceful solution.
Despite opening that geopolitical debate on morality and the nature of evil, the villain is not the most important addition to the cast. That would be Valka (voice of Cate Blanchett), a tamer of dragons who dresses in a colorful helmet and shakes a rattling staff to earn the trust of the beasts. Valka shows Hiccup the dragons' home—a sanctuary of lush greens and cool blues overseen by a massive alpha dragon that has the face of a blowfish and tusks—where she has learned that these animals are far more intelligent than any human could have imagined. She also shares much more with Hiccup than a similar philosophy regarding the creatures. These new characters (especially Valka, who gives the story a strong emotional core) mean that many of the supporting characters from the first film, who return for out-of-place comic relief, feel like leftovers of an abandoned vision for this narrative.
The plot follows through as one might anticipate, with diplomatic dead ends and big battles (As for the latter, note how DeBlois keeps upping the stakes in the centerpiece conflict, giving us skirmishes on land and in the air that eventually take their place in the shadow of a clash between two titans). This is far removed from the innocent simplicity of its predecessor; How to Train Your Dragon 2 sees this series growing up—quickly and for the better. Above all, it's a sumptuous display of imagination.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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