For about 20 years now, Dreamworks has filled its niche in the studio animation world by providing the grade school humor and pop culture pandering that their elders over at the House of Mouse are generally classy enough to avoid (even in the depths of the early 2000’s). Even at their best (say, a “Shrek” or a “Kung Fu Panda”), just about the best you could say for Dreamworks Animation film was that it was unexpectedly tolerable. Particularly when compared to the narrative and aesthetic efforts of Pixar in its prime, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s outfit seemed not only incapable of, but totally uninterested in doing anything but make oodles and oodles of cash – which, to be fair to the more economic and pragmatic-minded among us, was a totally reasonable stance to take.
Then along came 2010’s “How To Train Your Dragon.” The concept was innocuous enough, but Dreamworks surprised with by far its best film yet. It was partly the story, a remarkably intimate tale of friendship and father/son (mis)communication, but a lot of that film’s success has to do with the below-the-line talent: John Powell’s soaring, Oscar-nominated score, and “visual consultant” Roger Deakins’ signature flourish brought to gorgeous life by a talented animation team. For better or for worse, it was the first film after “Avatar” to make a case for 3D, solidifying that technology’s new place in Hollywood. It promised a new, possibly more Pixar-influenced direction for the studio.
A couple “Madagascar” sequels later, it’s clear that the overall landscape at Dreamworks Animation hasn’t changed – but thankfully “How To Train Your Dragon 2” proves that the vision of that particular property has remained in place. It’s notable here that sole screenwriting and directing credits both go to one person, Dean DeBlois (returning from co-directing duties on the original) – it’s rare for a big-studio animated project to be handed to a single voice rather than constructed by committee, and the benefits can be seen in the sequel’s consistency with the overall tone and style of the first film. Powell, Deakins, and the entire main voice cast have also returned, ensuring a similarly entertaining, occasionally touching adventure for children and adults alike.
Taking a page out of the “Toy Story” playbook, “How To Train Your Dragon 2” advances its characters forward in more or less real time: our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), once an awkward, fumbling adolescent, is now on the brink of manhood and officially next in line to become chieftain of the (Scandanavian? Scottish? Middle-Earth?) village of Berk, now a safe haven for those previously-scorned, fire-breathing overgrown lizards. His girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), the town’s best athlete, indulges her beau’s penchant for disappearing off into the wild blue yonder to explore the edges of the map with his trusty mount Toothless, though she encourages him to take up the responsibility offered him by his gruff, ever-oblivious father Stoick (Gerard Butler).
The conflict that follows is not unexpected, but not entirely unpleasant. Berk comes under threat by a rampaging marauder by the surely self-given title of Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who has built his own army of dragons by the principle of might equals right. Hiccup’s leadership will be sorely tested, as will his seemingly impregnable friendship with Toothless, but do we ever really doubt that he will find a way? The main weakness of DeBlois’ script is that it mistakes bleakness for suspense, taking a destructive twist that only serves to strengthen Hiccup’s perseverance, rather than doubting it.
Still, DeBlois surprises in other ways, mostly by avoiding clichés in the film’s subplots. As soon as a handsome, eligible suitor (voiced by you-know-nothing-Kit Harington, even) appeared, I immediately assumed a groan-worthy love triangle was in the works; thankfully, DeBlois is only aiming for a bit of (still a bit groan-worthy) comic relief. Another major plot turn, unfortunately spoiled by pretty much every trailer and every other piece of marketing associated with this film, is pleasantly met with tears and tenderness rather than anger and angst.
(If you’ve somehow remained unspoiled, it’s probably best to skip the following paragraph; if you don’t give a flying patootie about spoiler culture, read on!)
It’s a nice choice that keeps a dramatic revelation grounded in small character adjustments rather than outsized gestures, and gives the film its best scene, in which the reunited members of Hiccup’s family sing a convincing folk ditty composed by Powell in conjunction with Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi (another returning collaborator – Jónsi contributed an appropriately high-spirited original song to the credits of the first film, and has provided two more with even more prominent placement here). The uneasy and uncertain way in which Hiccup and his father adjust to the return of Hiccup’s mother, long thought dead, is a welcome alternative to the trite accusations I had again anticipated – even if newcomer Cate Blanchett can never quite decide what accent she’s going for.
No such subtlety is reserved for Drago, unfortunately, who is simply a stomping, growling, unmotivated antagonist, a disappointment after the original opted for more relatable, human conflicts over straight-up villainy. For all the traps that DeBlois fails to fall into, he doesn’t particularly do anything with his newfound freedom, crafting a sequel that is worthy of the first film but doesn’t really attempt to improve on it. Subverting a few aspects of a genre is not the same thing as revising it, and “How To Train Your Dragon 2” is content to trod the same thematic ground trod by many a Disney/Pixar film before it (bits of “The Lion King” come to mind, as well as “The Fox and the Hound”). It’s hard to argue, when the result is still just about the most charming thing Dreamworks has yet to come up with.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars