How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review

HTTYD2_Theatrical_Poster2014 is the year of the dragon. Calling it right now.

When the first How to Train Your Dragon movie first came out, audiences were caught off guard, mostly because they weren’t expecting it to be that good.  One would have to guess that because of the overwhelming critical and financial reception would push the creators at Dreamworks to make a sequel, with plans for a trilogy eventually being crafted alongside a well-received TV show also.  And now, the second installment has snagged a spot in the coveted summer blockbuster arena, making us part ways with our money in exchange for a stuffed dragon doll.

But HTTYD 2 isn’t trying to be a marketing gimmick (unlike Cars, or Need for Speed) that is trying to sell itself to you.  The screenwriters are focused on telling an absolutely epic story, first and foremost, which is what movies should be about, in a perfect world.  Did they deliver?  Yep…it’s safe to say that they did.

So HTTYD 2 takes place five years where the original film left off, which is a welcome change of pace because it allows us to get a good look at the characters we’ve become familiar with and see how they’ve grown over the years. All of the teens are now twenty and they all have facial hair…it’s actually starting to seem like the focus is shifting from kids to college students. (weird…) In the Viking village of Berk (where all of the characters have Scottish accents for some reason) dragons and people have fully acclimated to each other at this point. They’re used as steeds, work in blacksmith shops, and are often raced around the town by the young hooligans in a rip-roaring competition. One thing about this film is that the technology portrayed in the film is very cool (like complex contraptions regarding limbs, weapons, etc.). I like seeing this “stuff” happen on screen because it gives off a perfectionist air to the whole mix, the attention to detail is off the chart.

Our protagonist, Hiccup, is conflicted about someday being chief of the town. That’s not to say that he’s shirking responsibility, more like he feels that being a chief isn’t who he actually is inside. It’s a cliche topic, yes, but it’s handled delicately and naturally that it entirely fits with the character. Smart screenwriting at its best. Hiccup and his dragon steed, the aww-inducing Night Fury: Toothless, mostly spend their time flying around, mapping the world as they know it. Before long, they get wind of a plot to capture all dragons by a man named Drago -who has somehow acquired a massive army in the process- Hiccup and his friends, plus the aid of his newly discovered mother, eventually band together to fight and defeat Drago once and for all. I left out some key points in that summary there, yes, because anything else would be to spoilery. There are two facts in this world: people like grapes and people hate spoilers.

What I have to say about the production design of this movie is that it’s beautiful. There are scenes in this film where the animation looks hyper-realistic and that you’re just sitting there in your seat going, “wow.” The animators have to get big bonuses in their paychecks because this is some of the best animation that you will ever see since Legend of the Guardians. Add to the fact that the flying scenes are incredible, just like the last movie. Even if you don’t watch it in 3D, you will still be caught up in the sensation of flying from the perfect camera angles and the subtle shaking to fully emulate the proper effect. Just…mind=blown.

Another thing I love about the film is its soundtrack. John Powell returns from his sabbatical to compose the score for HTTYD 2 and the result is spectacular. The first film’s soundtrack was my favorite for 2010 and this one has claimed that spot for 2014 (amidst some pretty stiff competition from Godzilla and Legend of Hercules) because the scope of the orchestra is so massive that it just blows everything out of the water. Strings, woodwinds, brass, choir, memorable melodies, appropriate motifs! It has everything you could want in an epic score (there I go, I keep using that word again…) that there is just no excuse to hate it. The fact that the Jonsi song recorded for this film incorporates the main title into its melody is quite the treat for someone who enjoys film scores as a whole. Dare I say it, that the connection between the song and the soundtrack is far superior than what Frozen attempted? I’m going to get shot for saying that…

In terms of acting, everyone plays their parts well (one exception, but I’ll get to it). Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder, This is the End) does a perfect job as Hiccup, perfectly encapsulating the awkward manner of the character has on film. America Ferrera plays his now-girlfriend Astrid but their relationship is rather restrained to the part where it isn’t in your face (not to mention that Ferrera also does some good voice-acting).

Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, and Kristen Wiig play Hiccup’s friends and they are all hysterical when the focus is on them (even though they are one Michael Cera shy of it being a Superbad reunion). Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler, and Cate Blanchett also star (Scottish accents notwithstanding) and all are equally good.

One nice surprise was the addition of Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) as Eret, a dragon-trapper. Harrington’s character is a bit of an oddity as he plays the role relatively straight-faced but has a bit of comedy thrown in for good measure. He’s a fun character to be around and he gets a nice arc that will be rather touching for viewers (I mean…I’d see Jon Snow in anything, outside of Pompeii).

The one problem I have with this film is the villain. Djimon Hounsou has that deep menacing voice that all bad guys are required to have but because the film was focusing so much on trying to make this film a unique experience, it forgot to make the villain unique. Everything about this guy is cliched, even down to his name: Drago Bloodfist.  What the hell kind of name is “Bloodfist?” That’s not even the worst of the problems. This guy’s backstory is rather repetitive, he’s a bit of a hypocrite in his own beliefs, and he makes some rather dumb choices that are taken out of the Baddie 101 handbook: give opposition a sporting chance, monologue, look grim. Also, this guy never shuts up during a fight scene.  What do I mean by that?

When he’s calling for backup, he doesn’t just wave his arms in the Team America secret signal, he just bellows: AUUUUUUGGGGGHHHH!

When he’s trying to get a dragon’s attention: AUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH!

When he’s getting hit by a fireball: AUUUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHH! (although…that might be excusable in that situation)

So, yeah. You can see where I come from when I gripe about this guy.

But the star of the show, hands down, goes to the dragon Toothless. This guy is the absolute cutest character to grace the scene of animation since WALL-E. He has those deep, thoughtful eyes, his cat-like mannerisms, and his occasional snarky attitude. The fact that this guy can go from “aww” to “RAWR” instantaneously and have it be convincing is a testament to the character itself. At times, it’s hard to remember that Toothless is just a series of pixels on a screen and not a living, breathing, creature. Within the film, he is very much alive and it only a soulless person to see him as anything but.

With that being said, HTTYD 2 is a perfect sequel that expands on the ideas introduced by the original and takes them to lofty heights. The development of the characters is natural, all of the characters are likeable, the pacing of the story is engaging, and there are no gripes to be had with the overall execution of the plot. This film also gets very dark and emotional in some places, which surprised me since I was caught totally off guard for these scenes. I love it when this movie never pulls a punch at you, the impact is always full and raw. It’s not all sunshine and butterflies here but it’s a brave move that makes me respect it even more. One scene was so impactful that a woman (or man, possibly…) started crying in the row behind me…truth be told, it made me tear up as well. You’ll know when you see it. Also, viewers might be a little disappointed in the climax of the film as the scene that preceded it was more intense, but it’s only a nitpick at this point…even though it very carefully set up the idea that the story is not quite over yet.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. It is a movie that is catered for all audiences to enjoy, is cute enough for the kids, dark enough for the adults, the perfect package. With a film that has such minor, minor flaws I’m completely flabbergasted that it turned out to be this exciting of an experience. Seek with the utmost confidence.

Final Score: 95/100

 

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