Thanks for indulging me.
Sorry if I offended the fans of old-school animation, but it’s true. I’m not suggesting 2D animation should be abandoned. I just think it’s clear that CG has surpassed it in pretty significant ways.
My thoughts on this topic were really galvanized while watching How to Train Your Dragon 2. Like Frozen from last year, it’s another film using 3D computer animation to almost breathtaking effect both as visual spectacle and as character study.
I was a big fan of the first Dragon movie that came out four years ago and more than surprised by how good it was. Like most movie nerds, I was keenly aware of the quality gap that existed between the industry standard work Pixar was doing and the subpar work DreamWorks Animation was crapping out. It’s as if Jeffrey Katzenberg forgot the lessons he learned about making great animated films while he was working at Disney. It’s odd because he oversaw that murderers’ row of classic '90s Disney films that included The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Shrek, you are no Simba.
I think Dragon surprised a lot of people, because it was the first DreamWorks animated movie to live up to Pixar standards. It was a delightful boy-and-his dog-story recast with Vikings and dragons, but there was a lot more to it than that. It was thematically rich, dealing with issues ranging from ecological to paternal. But, it didn’t stop there. In a way it was downright subversive. It was a film aimed squarely at the family audience that provided a thinly veiled allegory for the war on terror. The film suggests that we fear our enemies, because we’ve never bothered to understand them or how our behavior might have an effect on theirs. And, let’s not forget that the hero gets disfigured in the end. (Also, the 3D flying sequences were awesome!)
We live in a time when the film industry desperately wants to create movie franchises, sometimes out of thin air. I know a lot of people like it better than I did, but does anybody really think 21 Jump Street needed a sequel, that there was another story in that world that needed to be told? I don’t think so. The first one was a hit, and so they are making another one. The problem with most modern sequels is they really aren’t the next chapter in a book about these characters. They are almost always an exact point-by-point remake of the first movie. Case in point? The Hangover Part II, which is the same frickin’ movie as the first one.
I’m happy to report that writer/director Dean DeBlois was done something rather radical: He’s made a proper sequel. This movie doesn’t just regurgitate the beats of the first story. It builds on the first story. In fact, and this is pretty unheard of for animation, DeBlois has set the story five years after the events of the first one. This also means he does something almost never attempted in animation, he ages the characters. There’s a reason Maggie Simpson has remained a baby for 25 years – it’s easier that way. Dragon 2 is a very ambitious second film.
When last we saw Hiccup (again voiced winningly by Jay Baruchel), he had just integrated the once-feared dragons into his Viking homeland. Just 15 years old during the events of the first film, Hiccup is now 20 and, along with his dragon Toothless, he is exploring and mapping the world. Part of that is due to his restless nature, but part of it is due to pressure he is getting from his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) to take over their village as chief. A lot has changed since Hiccup was a bumbling blacksmith’s apprentice in the first film. Seriously, how do you fill the shoes of a guy named Stoick the Vast?
While out exploring one day, Hiccup encounters a mysterious dragon rider. The masked figure turns out to be Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s long-lost mother. Swept away while Hiccup was a baby, she has spent the last 20 years among the creatures and is something of a dragon whisperer. Hiccup also encounters Eret, a dragon trapper who is gathering a dragon army for the film’s bad guy named Drago Bludvist.
If your name is Drago Bludvist (when spoken in the movie it sounds like “blood fist”), you’re more or less doomed to a life of super villainy. There’s not much chance you’ll grow up to be Dr. Bludvist or Principal Bludvist or Nobel Laureate Bludvist. You’re doomed. It’s like Greek tragedy. Drago is voiced by Djimon Hounsou, and he is in many ways Hiccup’s doppelganger. Both are missing limbs thanks to dragon encounters, but whereas Hiccup can control dragons by respecting them as magnificent animals, Drago’s approach is to control them through brute force, basically beating them into submission.
As much as I liked the first film, I liked this one a little bit less. That’s not to say it doesn’t work or that there aren’t sequences that are thrilling. After a very swift first third, I think it suffers from the same problem that plagues the first Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. DeBlois sees the series as a trilogy now, and so there is some needed backstory not covered in the first film that needs to get shoehorned in here. It’s kind of awkwardly presented. Hiccup’s reunion with his mom occurs in the middle stretch of the film, and, while it’s totally necessary for the storytelling, it does slow things down. Second acts are really tough sometimes. They also often become richer experiences on second or third viewings, which may very well be the case here.
The film regains its footing down the stretch, offering a truly spectacular aerial battle sequence that is boosted by some well-executed 3D which adds the extra sensation of flight. Since Avatar made 3D significantly bankable in recent years, there have only been a handful of films that I think utilized it well. (It’s mostly been a sketchy cash grab.) Hugo was one and so was the first Dragon. You can add this to the list. Dragon 2 looks amazing. An early scene Hiccup and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) imitate each other’s physical mannerisms demonstrates that subtle character animation I spoke of earlier.
Like the first film, no punches are pulled. The movie goes to some unexpectedly dark places, since doing the right thing doesn’t come without its costs. It makes some interesting points about how we are shaped by our families (Hiccup clearly demonstrates qualities of both his parents.) and the challenges involved in living up their expectations while finding our own way in life. Hiccup is a great protagonist for young audience members similarly discovering their own identities. As with the first film, the animators have done a fine job giving Toothless a charming personality, as well as traits of both cats and dogs.
Sometimes, the middle of three chapters can be kind of a let down. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is very much worth your time and may very well be setting up a terrific final chapter.