Not since Toy Story 2, has an animated sequel so thoroughly topped its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. Which is quite an impressive achievement. I remember with vivid detail the delight I felt watching the original Toy Story (quite similar to how I felt about How To Train Your Dragon). It was a monumental achievement that couldn’t be topped, or so we thought. What we didn’t anticipate was how much more enjoyable it is to spend time with characters that are already developed. You add a good story behind those characters and our love can pretty much take over the rest. It’s that simple.
Which is why when Pixar added a really good story to their Toy Story sequels they only got better. If Dreamworks keeps the same thing up with How To Train Your Dragon, they can create another brilliant animated trilogy. After this near masterpiece, they are already more than halfway there. All they need is to properly close things out in a way that recognizes our affection for the characters and connects them to us on a personal level. Use the tools of the trade to embed them in our hearts forever. You can do it Dreamworks! I believe in you!
The best way to explain my feelings about this film is to make comparisons to the great films that it evokes. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly feels like its own beast, but like any great film of this era we live in, it borrows from the greats. One of those greats being The Empire Strikes Back. Yep, I totally mean it. This latest adventure truly feels like a wonderfully animated Star Wars cousin, that just happens to have dragons instead of star ships or ewoks. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) even has a light saber of sorts that lights fire when he presses a button. One could actually argue that Hiccup is like Luke Skywalker meets Tony Stark in a way. Pretty cool in my book.
The film opens with 10 minutes of pure perfection. We first get brought up to speed on the town of Berk by watching a delightfully entertaining game of dragon racing, but it isn’t long before we are exactly where we want to be. That’s right, flying through the sky with Hiccup and Toothless. If you have seen the first trailer for this film then you know that this initial flight sequences is truly a thing of exhilarating beauty and for once it demands to be witnessed in 3D.
Yet, the little scene that follows the amazing flight sequence is somehow even better. It first involves a playful Hiccup and Toothless bonding over their discovery of a new land that they aptly call Itchy Armpit. Their playfulness and horsing around is a pure delight to behold. It is funny and charming in a way that only the great bond of beloved characters can be. It will also evoke memories of the forbidden friendship moments of discovery in the original. Then Astrid (America Ferrera) shows up and things get even more adorable.
If you remember the first one well then you know Hiccups girlfriend Astrid, but their relationship was given little time to blossom in the first. This one somehow manages to trump that thin relationship development and make these two feel like star crossed soul mates. The way they play with each other in this first scene together is so charming that your cheeks may go red from excessive smiling. It’s so wonderful that you may wish that you could just enjoy their company for two hours and hold off on the story for a little while.
Don’t worry, there is a lot of story in this little epic tale. I’m just letting you know that it’s good enough to enjoy even without a plot. Which is mostly surrounding the self discovery of both Hiccup and Toothless, but mostly Hiccup. You see, five years have past and the world has settled into living with dragons. The town of Berk is also in love with the dragon master (Hiccup) and his night fury (Toothless). So much so, Hiccup’s father, Stoic (Gerard Butler), wants him to take over as chief of the village.
This doesn’t work very well for Hiccup. He is still discovering who he is and seems more inclined to explore the unknown or try to meet new civilizations. It’s this inclination that leads him to a group of dragon catchers on a giant sheet of ice. These dragon thieves work for an evil man named Drago (Djimon Honsou) and are trying to steal dragons for fear of punishment. It turns out that Drago is creating a dragon army to conquer anyone who stands in his way. Bad news right? Apparently, worse then anyone could imagine.
When Hiccup tells his father, Stoic shuts down the whole city and reveals a dark past that he had kept hidden. It turns out that Drago has the ability to control the dragons and is quite capable of horrible violence. This scares Stoic, but not Hiccup. He believes that if he can find Drago then he can convince him that dragons can be tamed and loved just like he proved to his father. This leads him out on a mission that will take him to places he could never have imagined and where he will meet someone that will change his life forever.
However, surrounding all that plot is the deeper tale of a young man and the unbreakable bond he has with his animal. Both Hiccup and Toothless get the opportunity to go in new and darker territory here. Sometimes the territory is surprisingly dark and may shock some viewers, but I found the whole thing quite fresh. This all exists as a vessel for Hiccup to truly become a man and the pair of them to become real leaders.
I could praise this film all day long if I had the chance. I was completely caught of guard by the quality of this film and found myself in awe by so much. The animated cinematography, that was given a visual consultation by the great Roger Deakins, is just breathtaking. As a matter of fact, this may be the most beautiful digitally animated film ever made. Only the films of Hayao Miyazaki supersede this movies beauty to me. Although, that’s kind of unfair because Miyazaki’s films are some of the most beautiful made in any genre.
Miyazaki movies are actually another really great comparison to the visual style of this film. If you can imagine a digitally animated version of Castle In The Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle then you can get a pretty good idea of the wonder that is in store for you here. The locations and flying are really at that same level of imagination. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is the highest honor an animated movies visuals can get.
I also have to give major props to John Powell for delivering another epic score. He was nominated for the oscar for the first film and this one is just as good. There is a bit of mixing with pop music that I could have done without, but even that is pretty good. The horns in his compositions are unforgettable and the string section is enough to make you tear up at times. This movie would not work without this music. It’s essential.
Honestly, the only real issue I could come across whole watching this film was the villain. Drago is pretty cool, but he is only given a thin explanation for his evil ways. Still, the explanation certainly makes more sense than any of the villains in The Amazing Spider Man 2 and this is a really small complaint for an otherwise perfect film.
If you haven’t already bought your tickets then you should go out to your nearest theater or get on your computer and make it happen. Take the whole family. This is one of the few films you will see this summer that anyone from four to ninety-four can enjoy and probably will. If I was a betting man, I’d put my money down How To Train Your Dragon 2 becoming the highest grossing and most beloved movie of the year. A movie this good demands to be seen multiple times and in the best format available. So, get out of your seat and go see what might be the best film of the year so far.
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