Friday, June 20, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2 (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Dean DeBlois


The How To Train Your Dragon series has very quietly become the best that DreamWorks Animation has to offer. The original film and its new sequel are funny in a sweet kind of way and market themselves toward children without insulting their intelligence. They have the sincerity of Pixar films, but they don't have to carry the weight of expectation that comes with that studio. They're mature, well-made and well-told stories that still carry an innocence that makes them feel fresh. The films are based on a series of children's books by the English writer Cressida Cowell, but the films themselves are the brainchild of veteran filmmaker Dean DuBlois, who's written and directed both films. DeBlois' work beforehand was mostly as a screenwriter, penning the scripts to Mulan and Lilo & Stitch. His commitment to good writing is shown off well here. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, DeBlois discovers the true stakes behind these wonderful characters. He shows an understanding of how these characters can lead toward a moment of real tragedy before rising to triumph. It sits up with The LEGO Movie amongst the best animated films of the year, but this film is most definitely more dense, a true family film in the most flattering sense of the phrase.

As we return to the Viking village of Berk, we learn that not only has the community accepted the presence of dragons but they have actually chosen to live together with them. It's not uncommon to see dragons helping out with farming and work, while also pitching in with recreational activities. One of these activities is dragon racing, which looks a little bit like Quidditch from Harry Potter but with dragons instead of brooms and live sheep instead of that little rubber ball with wings. Chief Stoik (Gerard Butler) is still the head of the village, and he hopes to pass that title on to his adventurous son, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup is less interested in taking on the role of Village Chief, he instead wants to travel the globe with his Night Fury dragon named Toothless. Hiccup and Toothless fly off further and further, discovering new lands and documenting everything that they see. Astrid (America Ferrera), now Hiccup's girlfriend, tries to explain to him the value of becoming Village Chief, but Hiccup still has little interest. When Hiccup and Astrid fly their dragons to investigate a wildfire, they come across a group of men in a fort surrounded by a large ice formation. The men end up being villainous dragon trappers led by a man named Eret (Kit Harrington). They capture dragons for their master, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who's building a dragon army to take on Berk.

Hiccup and Astrid are able to escape Erit and his crew without much fanfare, but when they return home to inform Stoik about Drago, the chief goes into full-on defense mode. Hiccup remains hopeful that he can convince Drago about the goodness of dragons, since he was able to do so with the entire village before. But Stoik explains that Drago is simply a bitter, murderous madman who cannot be trusted. Against Stoik's wishes, Hiccup rides off on the back of Toothless, off to find Drago and make his case for the rightful treatment of dragons. Hiccup and Toothless are captured by an expert dragon rider who brings them to their layer. The rider reveals herself to be Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup's mother, long thought killed by dragons. Hiccup is stunned by her presence, but he's even more surprised by the occupants of her layer. Further in, there is a dragon sanctuary, where hundreds of dragons of various ages live in relative peace amongst each other. With the rising army of Drago, the dragons of not only Berk but also in Valka's sanctuary are threatened, and it's up to Hiccup, his newly reunited parents and and the rest of Berk to take him on.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 was shot in 3D like the first one, and also like the first one, I chose to watch it in two dimensions. Good storytelling usually overcomes that kind of scrutiny, and this movie certainly rises above it (a film like, say Maleficent on the other hand, seems a bit embarrassing in plain ol' 2D). Ever since seeing Toy Story 3 in 3D, I've become convinced that there is little other than the monetary benefit to seeing films this way - plus you have to wear those dopey glasses. If anything, I'd recommend not seeing How To Train Your Dragon 2 in 3D. It's visuals are stunning and the temporary, opthamalogically-burdening requirements of 3D could only due to lessen that effect. Unlike The LEGO Movie which seems like the kind of film in which an extra dimension could only heighten its frenetic style. DeBlois consulted with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film (Deakins has done this numerous times with animated films in the last decade or so, including WALL-E and the first How To Train Your Dragon film), and creates some breathtaking sky landscapes. Its visuals are truly cinematic and its battle sequences are framed with breathtaking clarity. It's one of the best looking movies you can see in the theaters right now.

All of the same voice actors have returned, with the welcome addition of reigning Best Actress winner Blanchett. Jay Baruchel's nebbish, nasally voice continues to give the neurotic Hiccup his very best manifestation, while it seems fitting that the best Hollywood performance Gerard Butler has ever given is the one where you don't ever see him. Kristen Wiig and Jonah Hill reprise roles that they've probably outgrown as members of Hiccup's group of friends. The ensemble, led by Baruchel, fantastically represents the spirit of these wholesome films. The film went up against 22 Jump Street in its first weekend at the box office. Both films were entertaining sequels that understood the successes of its predecessors. 22 Jump Street subverted that success in a hilarious, but cynical way. It was a film for adults that understood that a 21 Jump Street movie, let alone a sequel, is absolutely ridiculous. How To Train Your Dragon 2's ambitions are a lot less sinister. It keeps the original's formal beauty and adds elements and characters to give this new story more stakes. Sequels are always bigger, but too often bigger ends up getting translated to watered down. How To Your Train Your Dragon understands the line between sincerity and utter sentimentality, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 has this same understanding, only this time there's a lot more dragons. 

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