Released in 2010, the first "How to Train Your Dragon" movie has proven to be a singular entry in Dreamworks Animation's filmography. The studio's animation division is "The House That Shrek Built" through and through, and the majority of its output has been modeled on that first massive success: jokey tales laden with pop culture references, and featuring voice casts heavy on recognizable stars. But by forgoing most of those characteristics, "How to Train Your Dragon" felt different. Combining breathtaking animation with a straightforward adventure story about the friendship between a young boy and a dragon, the film delivered something more resonant than the lightweight diversions found in films like "Shark Tale" or "Madagascar."
Director Dean DeBlois, flying solo after Chris Sanders -- his writing and directing partner on the first film -- left to make "The Croods," has stated in interviews that "The Empire Strikes Back" served as a major influence on the film, and the comparison makes sense. Part of a planned trilogy, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" expands the established universe in ways that feel like a natural storytelling progression and does so with a more sophisticated, slightly darker tone. Though the series has matured, it's still in every way a worthy follow-up to the first "Dragon" film.
Set five years after the events of the previous film, the sea-side Viking village of Berk no longer lives in fear of dragon attacks, and its citizens coexist in mutually beneficial harmony with the fire-breathing beasts. Now a young adult, Hiccup (again excellently voiced by Jay Baruchel) is under pressure from his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), to take over for him as village chief. Uncomfortable in a leadership position, Hiccup would rather be off with his faithful dragon, Toothless, discovering and mapping out unexplored territories beyond the borders of Berk.
It's on one of these excursions that he runs into a dragon trapper named Eret (Kit Harington, showing more personality here as a voice actor than he has in "Pompeii" and all four seasons of "Game of Thrones" put together), who's been rounding up dragons to deliver to fearsome warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago has been raising an unstoppable dragon army to aid in his power-hungry quest to conquer the world, and his plans threaten to bring destruction to Hiccup's peaceful homeland. Hiccup also meets Valka (voiced by the phenomenal Cate Blanchett), a mysterious dragon rider who's been living amongst the creatures as their Dian Fossey-esque protector. The sequence introducing her character is the highlight of the film, and features some fantastic character design work from the animators.
The film isn't perfect: the film's more adult storytelling
sometimes clashes with the humor, making the jokes seem more juvenile than they
should. There's some oddly clunky dialogue throughout, and I would have liked a
bit of development for Drago's character, but "Dragon
2" succeeds in both broadening and deepening its world while delivering
jaw-dropping, gorgeous animation. If you can, I suggest springing for a showing
in 3D. It shows once again how effective the format can be in the hands of filmmakers
who put care and thought into how they utilize it. The flying sequences alone
are worth the price. But even without the 3D, "Dragon 2" is the sort of
exciting, emotionally satisfying, and well-told story that Dreamworks
could use more of.