Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2": Better Than The First

Now In Theaters
Until very recently, I had not seen the first How to Train Your Dragon.  I’d heard about it and heard that it was good, but nothing I’d heard made me feel like I needed to see it immediately.  When I finally did sit down to watch it a couple weeks ago, I found myself charmed by the visual style and well-told story, but wasn’t very much inclined to go to the theater for the sequel.  But then, on a whim, a friend and I decided to go see it, this being her third time watching it and me finally incentivized to go to the big screen.  And as the theater lights came up and the concept art backdropped the film’s credits, I found myself wanting more.  I realize this review comes almost a month after How to Train Your Dragon 2’s release, so the film’s availability is likely going to be pretty low in the coming weeks, but I just have to get this out there: If you haven’t already, go see How to Train Your Dragon 2.  It’s a charming film that expertly expands on the premise of its predecessor, offering much more than the standard kid’s movie schlock that one normally expects from Dreamworks.

The story picks up five years after the first.  The village of Berk is a utopian vision of human-dragon cooperation, and Hiccup and Toothless fly around the surrounding islands, trying to map out the newly accessible greater world.  Hiccup’s father is trying to prime him for taking over the village one day, but Hiccup isn’t sure that’s what he wants for himself.  Meanwhile, a looming threat lies on the horizon in the form of Drago Bloodfist, a conqueror who has amassed an army of dragons in order to take over the world.  As Hiccup’s father tries to prepare Berk for war, Hiccup believes he can reason with Drago, and so sets off to find him and reason with him.  Meanwhile, the hunters-turned-riders from the first film have their own comically romantic subplot, a band of dragon trappers is discovered, and a new nest of dragons holds a plethora of mysteries to be unraveled.  If this sounds like this is a lot of running plot threads, it is, and there are more surprises waiting throughout the film.  And, surprisingly, it all works very well.  This could have easily been a retread of Hiccup’s character arc from the first film, but fortunately, this story takes the already-established world of the first film and builds a more complex tale that doesn’t leave any dangling threads by the time it’s completed.

Of course, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the dragon designs.  The first film had some really cute renditions of dragon, creating a vastly rich world wherein every type of dragon has a name and a distinct personality.  The sequel continues this tradition not only by giving us a deeper look into the dragons’ naturally playful antics, but by providing us with new designs that really help to enrich our understanding of dragon culture.  In particular, what come to mind are the neurotic baby dragons and the alpha Bewildebeasts, who are not necessarily as vicious as the first film’s alpha dragon.  And all these new designs are accentuated by the fantastic action scenes, which have us swooping and diving with the loveable monsters and their riders.  Dreamworks really stepped up their game in animating some of these complex battles, and I’m glad to see the effort put in.

If I had to make a nitpick, I’d probably have to say that Drago isn’t really all that interesting of a villain.  Sure, there’s some stuff by the end of the film that makes him interesting in comparison to Hiccup, but for the majority of the film, he’s mostly a loud, brash villain archetype who’s just a human version of the villain dragon from the first movie.  The film has enough twists and turns where that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, though, making Drago’s invasion almost secondary to some of the greater themes at play.  And, frankly, that's just fine by me.

I’ve only scratched the surface as to what makes How to Train Your Dragon 2 so good, but to say any more would be give away some of the film’s greater surprises.  I’m sure fans of the series have seen the film multiple times already, but if any of you are still on the fence, this is definitely worth seeing on the big screen.  I only wish I’d recommended it sooner.


And now How to Train Your Dragon 3 has been announced with a 2016 release date.  Where do you think the franchise is headed as it completes a trilogy?  Think Dreamworks can pull a hat trick and make the third installment as good as the first two?  Let me know in the comments below.

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