Ah, Berk. That fictional far away land where Dragons once plagued humans, until a young boy made friends with a Night Fury and changed everything.
How I’ve missed this place.
Fox & Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2 brings us back to its dragon riding fun, taking place 5 years after the events of the first film. While the story doesn’t have the same level of depth as say, Kung Fu Panda 2, it still manages to be an enjoyable thrill ride when the dragons are taking flight.
Since this is an animated feature, let’s do visuals first. The animation is roughly the same as the original, with a bit of aging here and there for the main characters, but both the colors and the depth of field are a major standout. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) was brought back on board as a consultant for the lighting, focus and color tones and it definitely shows. If at all possible, this film should be seen in its 3D format. The flight sequences are a joy to behold and when they’re not flying, you shouldn’t find yourself squinting and pinching your nose too much. Chris Sanders wasn’t on hand this time for the writing and directing, although you can still see his designs all over the film.
Additionally, there were a number of technical changes that improved the process. Just as Pixar did with Renderman, Dreamworks ended up creating their own software, Apollo. Apollo uses two tools – Premo, which allowed the animators better control of characters through the use of Wacom tablets. Even more magical is Torch, a lighting system developed with Deakins’ assistance that allowed for more natural setups in animation. One of the best uses of this is when Hiccup is surrounded in a dark room and needs to use his sword to illuminate the area. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s used in other Dreamworks projects.
All of the familiar characters are back – Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup is a little older, and much wiser than in the original, with he and Toothless mapping the lands around Berk during their flights. Hiccup’s flair for gadgetry hasn’t left him, as in this film, the character is introduced almost as a medieval Batman. Between he, his father Stoic (Gerald Butler) and his girlfriend / Dragon Racing Champion Astrid (America Ferrera), they get the bulk of the screen time. His friends, played by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig, felt more like cameos than anything else here. Then again, they really didn’t have that great a part in the first film. Toothless, the Unholy Offspring of fire and darkness itself, is still as cuddly and emotive as ever, despite not being able to actually speak. Through the film, both Toothless and Hiccup find themselves growing up in different ways and their relationship is at the heart of everything here. Hiccup and Stoic still have family issues, this time centering around Hiccup preparation for becoming Chief of the town after Stoic steps down.
When Astrid and Hiccup discover dragon hunters (Lead by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, whose character here still knows nothing), they find a new evil on the horizon in the form of Drago (Guardians of the Galaxy and Blood Diamond’s Djimon Hounsou), who is building a dragon army to do some harm.
Where the movie may stumble is in its last act. It felt abbreviated to me, but as this is meant for children, I suppose it’s not meant to be that long of a film. Clocking in at 102 minutes, it moves fast. For a kid’s film, Dragon 2 rises to some interesting heights that even adults would appreciate. The film doesn’t assume you need to be retold everything you may have missed in the first film, though it does reference some elements of it. The themes of the story are coexistence (between humans & dragons), leadership, friendship and family, and they’re done well.