Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, a sequel that focuses on advancing character and plot rather than rehashing ideas from the previous film. The first film in the series established a relationship growing between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a timid Viking going against the norm, and Toothless, a dragon that Hiccup wounds during a battle between the humans and winged beasts. The Vikings misunderstood the dragons only to learn that they are protective, caring creatures that were threatened by man’s inability to show them compassion. Humans were cast in a generally unforgiving light until the whole island of Berk accepted the dragons and bonded peacefully with them. Now, five years later, the two species are thriving together and living amicably. The opening scene reaffirms that by showing a packed house watching dragon races where riders guide the animals to different colored sheep worth points. Things are running smoothly without a hitch.
Now that they can coexist peacefully, Hiccup and his friends use their dragons to explore the rest of the world around them and chart out the lands. They discover a secret ice cave that houses hundreds of dragons and is overseen by the famous Dragon Rider, a force that promises to help maintain the peace that’s been newly established. A force like Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), however, poses a threat since he hopes to gather an army of dragons to take control of the lands. He enlists the help of dragon trappers, led by Eret (Kit Harington), who do not understand the kindess of dragons like the people of Berk. They are more open to learning their ways, though, and aim to work with Stoick (Gerard Butler) and his men to purge the world of this malevolent force. Other returning faces include armor-making Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and competing love interests for Ruffnut in Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
There’s a lot happening in How to Train Your Dragon 2, but the film moves forward without losing sight of necessary dramatic action. Every action and motivation is established and grounded within the film’s narrative, allowing for the traditionally cutesy elements in animation to exist more quietly and effectively. The film’s weighty and lofty in its ambition: at its heart is the desire to communicate the importance of animal rights and the necessity to better understand every animal that exists on the Earth. The aimless killing and subjugation of animals (and to an extent, individuals) that we do not understand is a mandatory message even in today’s world with extinction facing many species. But most importantly, the film furthers the relationship between man and animal with Hiccup and Toothless, turning into something akin to a man and his famed best friend, a dog. Most of the dragons have the kindhearted, free-wheeling spirit of dogs that makes them perfect companions, and the emotion within this relationship is impressively unique.
The film is the most stunning animated film ever made, a visual wonder that capitalizes on 3D perfectly and understands how the scope of a scene can be visually represented. That’s a huge testament to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins acting as a visual consultant on the film, providing the necessary mix of background and foreground action within stunningly captured scenes. The action has meaning and is genuinely exciting because of the way it is captured; the 3D pops off the screen in the flying sequences and allows for the dragons and humans to coexist peacefully in the viewer’s eyes. There’s a beauty to the film’s enhancement of the narrative through its visual effects. While the developments in the film may not be perfect, like a love interest for Ruffnut that makes for an aggressive competition for her attention, the address of love, loss, and loyalty is a deliberately heavy topic that writer-director Dean DeBlois handles with intimacy and care. This is a lovingly crafted sequel that advances characters and narrative with ease and integrity.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)