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Thursday, June 12, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review: Unexpected Twists Fuel Excellent Sequel

DreamWorks Animation hits animated paydirt with the very good How to Train Your Dragon 2.
DreamWorks Animation has hit a bit of a rough spot in the past three years. Although Mr. Peabody & Sherman ranks as one of the top animated films of 2014, the studio saw disappointing returns for 2013's Turbo and 2012's Rise of the Guardians. Granted, they do have the Madagascar series, but there's been the sense that DWA has been flailing in their search for a second franchise. Luckily, the very good How to Train Your Dragon 2 might just offer the studio exactly what it needs.

Set five years after the original, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is grown up but not ready to take the reigns from his Viking father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler). To his dad, Hiccup is still a boy, content to soaring with Toothless the Dragon and hanging out with his girlfriend Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera). But soon, the two realize that rival kingdoms are gunning for their home Berk and the dragons they have trained. At the top of that list is the hunter Eret (voiced by Kit Harrington), who works for the fierce warlord Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) - Drago is obsessed with capturing as many dragons as possible, determined to use them in his quest to conquer all the surrounding kingdoms. Trouble also arrives when Hiccup realizes that his mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) is still alive and has created a dragon sanctuary that lies right in the sights of Drago. As these three worlds collide, Hiccup must learn to deal with personal tragedy and the growing responsibilities of being someone he's not ready to become.

HTTYD2 has all the elements of a stellar sequel: great new characters and higher stakes, with a little Game of Thrones thrown in for color. Its themes of rival kingdoms, broken families, and masterminds who cannot be dealt with offer important lessons for the kids who grew up loving HTTYD but are ready now for the tougher lessons of life. HTTYD2 offers them up with stunning animation, equaling 2013's The Croods and possibly setting itself above Brave and Frozen. Director/Writer Dean DeBlois returns with a darker, deeper tale that may prove to be a little too much for the youngest, but doesn't require the rest of us to have watched The Riders of Berk animated series that's been airing since 2012.

It's hard to give animation credit to DeBlois, but his ability to fuse our dragons with emotions and place them in some of the best action set pieces of the year comes through even when they're not flying so high. He lets Toothless frolic with the new dragons like a puppy meeting new friends - additionally, his ability to emote when tragedy strikes is poignant, something at which the original also excelled. But it's the relationship between these dragons and their human allies which provides the glue. There's enough emotional bond here to to bring any man to tears, and the nuance of one scene in particular in which Toothless accidentally kills someone is both powerful and remarkably sad.

Hiccup and Valka are also well-drawn characters, each filled with questions about the other but ready to defend their homes against Drago without question. Blanchett is a welcomed addition, her voice at one moment motherly and loving and the next that of a hardened general. Having voiced him throughout the animated series, Baruchel now inhabits Hiccup and it shows as he struggles to balance his father's desires while racing Toothless high above Berk. But when his future is forced upon him, the film struggles a bit, as if DeBlois isn't quite ready to bathe Hiccup in fire, choosing to catch him in his own recipe of disaster and loss but seemingly unwilling to see it to the bloody end. A showdown with Drago proves unfruitful and a bit disappointing, leaving us wondering if last-minute adjustments to the story were made to keep things from turning all Red Wedding.

Audiences, as much as characters, need the catharsis of either revenge or justice and sadly DeBlois doesn't opt for the nuclear option, settling instead on something a bit more abstract. HTTYD2 feels like it's growing with its core audience - now in their early teens - but it's still not ready to give Hiccup and his world the death grip that might be coming in part 3. Until then, we're granted more romantic relationships, some of which yield great laughs along the way. There's a love-quadrangle between Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), the Viking boys Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Snoutlout (Jonah Hill) and the newcomer Eret, whose strong arms take Ruffnut in decidedly sexual territory. None of it is too much, and it provides some necessary levity for this beautifully-shot and even photo-realistic affair. Seriously, look at Hiccup's hair, the scales on Toothless's back, or the trees waving in the background and you'd almost think you were watching real actors being motion-captured.

With little competition, How to Train Your Dragon 2 should realize box office glory. It's one of those rare sequels that doesn't rest on its laurels, delivering a powerful gut punch about loss and forgiveness without alienating its core younger audience. Stunningly beautiful and capturing the essence of man's connection with animals, this one should easily find itself at the top of most 'Best-Of' lists and might even find itself capturing an Oscar come February. Yes, it really is that good.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor and has a runtime of 102 minutes.

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