Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Directed by: Dean DeBlois.
Written by: Dean DeBlois based on the book series by Cressida Cowell.
Starring: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Cate Blanchett (Valka), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrera (Astrid), Jonah Hill (Snotlout), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs), T.J. Miller (Tuffnut), Kristen Wiig (Ruffnut), Djimon Hounsou (Drago), Kit Harington (Eret).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 avoids the typical downfalls of sequels to animated kids movies – that is, it is not just a repeat of the last film, yet louder and coarser. That seems to be what most animated sequels try to do – simply milk another few dollars out of parents by giving them the exact same thing the second time around. How to Train Your Dragon 2 does what all great sequels do – expand the universe of the first film, show the characters evolve further. It’s rare these days to see an animated film that actually appeals to both parents and their kids – rarer still to find that film be a sequel. But How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that film.

Writer-Director Dean DeBlois seems much more interested in the world of Birk – and the surrounding areas – and the characters that have already been established and their evolving relationship than in a typical plot. True, How to Train Your Dragon 2 does have a plot – Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is under pressure from his father (Gerald Butler) to become chief, when he simply wants to explore the wider world. It’s while exploring that he discovers his long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchatt) – who lives with the dragons – and the two start to get to know each other. And he also finds out that someone named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who says he can control the dragons, is out for war. They are on a collision course – and the movie does in fact end with a few huge (spectacularly animated) battle sequences with hundreds of dragons, and their riders, attacking each other. Yet, I think DeBlois seems to enjoy the quieter sequences more. Essentially, Hiccup, Vlaka and Drago represent three completely different ways of “living with” dragons. For Vlaka, she has spent the two decades since she abandoned her family living with the dragons, almost as one of them – not interfering with them, and following their lead. Drago has spent his time learning to control dragons – so that he can use them as weapons. Hiccup is in between these two extremes – he doesn’t want to control his dragon, nor does he want to be controlled by them. He wants a partnership with them – that both of them working together are stronger than either can be by themselves. It makes sense, in a way, that Vlaka was at one point supposed to be the villain of the movie – Drago in some ways is an underdeveloped character. He shows up fairly late in the movie (even if his presence has been discussed since the beginning) and once the action starts, the film doesn’t have much for Vlaka to do. She is still a strong female character – as is Astrid (voiced by America Ferrara) Hiccup’s fiancĂ©, who he sees as a partner, not a prize. Sadly, that’s considered good news in a summer blockbuster when it comes to female characters – but we’ll take what we can get.

Besides, as I said, I think DeBlois is more interested in the relationships than the story itself. The movie is at its best when it’s about Hiccup and Vlaka getting to know each other – feeling each other out, as the mysteries that Hiccup has struggled with – why he’s so different from his father – starts becoming clearer. He is his mother’s son in many ways. But his journey in this film is one where he discovers he’s equal parts of both of his parents – as he realizes what he must do.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great sequel because it continues its story, rather than repeating it. Yes, there some unnecessary subplots - pretty much everything with Eret – voiced by Kit Harrington – as a dragon hunter is useless, especially after he fulfills his needs in the plot, which is to introduce us to Drago. And Drago is underdeveloped – although even so, he makes an intimidating villain, with his bulking size, his dreadlocks, and Hounsou’s booming, distinctive voice coming out of a character that doesn’t look like we expect him to. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of the original film – in part, because that film was such a pleasant surprise back in 2010 (I certainly didn’t expect much from it). But for Dreamworks animation – a studio who has struggled to come up with worthy sequels to good originals (like all the Shrek movies, and King Fu Panda 2) – this feels like a step forward for them. They’re learning that you have to do more than simply repackage what worked last time.

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