Dreamworks Animation’s exhilarating return to the world of How to Train Your Dragon has a lot in common with its two main characters Hiccup and Toothless. It soars to breathtaking heights. It’s uniquely lovable. And it’s lost a few parts.
Director Dean DeBlois is intent on upping the scale from the first movie. Not just in terms of the narrative, but in every element that makes up the film. As a whole, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a success, but all those leaps forward shake loose some of the charm and emotion that made the first entry so wonderful.
Set five years after the events of the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explores the world with his dragon Toothless while the newly enlightened Vikings of Berk continue to live in harmony with their former foes. But Hiccup’s exploration of the world brings new discoveries, namely, finding his long-thought-dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and the power-mad Drago (Djimon Hounsou). The new discoveries bring immeasurable dangers as Hiccup must face tough choices and grow into a man.
The original HTTYD was a sweet but thrilling tale of a boy who changed his people and found his best friend. The sequel continues the story of Hiccup, Toothless, and the world of Berk, expanding its scope and taking some real chances. It’s not merely a repeat of the first film, but an effort to expand it into a much larger story. While the narrative definitely plays on a larger scale in the sequel, it isn’t as tightly woven as the first, causing some minor moments to sag at times, while still not dragging the film down.
There are also some much darker themes and developments at play here. Characters die and the film’s world is changed forever due to the movie’s developments. It’s quite obvious that the filmmakers were willing to take chances when crafting the sequel’s narrative. While it makes the film a heavier tale than the original, it also results in some of its most emotionally impactful moments. The loss of one character in particular is incredibly sad and realistic, especially in regards to a children’s animated feature. How the character’s death affects the overall quality of the series will have to be seen in the coming sequels.
The themes of lost love and family reconciliation also create some of the film’s strongest emotions. The reunion of Hiccup’s parents Valka and Stoick (Gerard Butler) is definitely a highlight because of the careful balance struck between laughs and sentiment. However, the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop of the original.
Like the first film, the true strengths of HTTYD2 rest on the characters. Hiccup is still the unlikely hero who bucks most movie protagonist trends while Toothless is the perfect blend of adorable and fierce. Their bond is put to the test here and they experience some truly dark moments, but it also results in many joyous scenes. Seeing them grow and bond is the real emotional core of the series.
The rest of the characters are welcome familiar faces, but Stoick, Valka, Astrid (America Ferrera), and Gobber (Craig Ferguson) are the standouts. The rest are fun, if somewhat forgettable this time around.
Unfortunately, the weakest characters are two new additions. Kit Harington’s Eret, a boisterous dragon trapper, has some fun moments, but his overall character arc is somewhat weak. The real villain of the piece, the dragon hunter Drago Bludvist, is certainly intimidating and creates a palpable threat to our heroes, but he isn’t much more than outright evil. His presence creates a much more imminent threat that adds urgency to the narrative, but that seems to be his main purpose.
There are already plans for a third and possibly a fourth entry into the series. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why some of the character arcs here feel brief and somewhat chopped short. However, the story still functions as a self-contained narrative. These two elements create a somewhat difficult dichotomy that prevents a few pieces from being fully satisfying. But it isn’t enough to detract from the story as a whole.
In the five years since HTTYD, digital animation has made major advancements. The original film was beautiful to look at, but this is outright gorgeous. Beautiful vistas, cloud-swirling flights, and hundreds of unique dragons on screen at the same time make this trip back to Berk a worthwhile one for the view alone. It helps that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought in as a consultant on the film. His touch has helped to create many marvelous shots that make an impression from beginning to end.
Character models are even more detailed and lifelike, while still remaining charmingly cartoonish. From Hiccup’s newly-grown stubble to Toothless’ many scales, every character is rendered in stunning detail. While almost every dragon from the first film returns, there are many notable additions to the beastly cavalcade on screen this time around. Adding so many new dragons helps keep the sense of wonder and discovery intact from the first movie.
On the musical side of things, composer John Powell’s return to Berk is triumphant. He brings back every element that made the first film’s soundtrack so exhilarating and poignant (read my in-depth look at the first film’s score here), but tweaks them to make them feel fresh. The score may be just as vital of a component to the How to Train Your Dragon series as any other element. Powell makes sure that the audience is treated to a feast for the ears that lovingly compliments and bolsters, yet never overpowers, the action on screen.
Minor detractions mean that HTTYD2 doesn’t surpass the original, but it doesn’t prevent the film as a whole from being a welcomed return to the world of Berk. It’s also a great example of how to create a sequel to a well-loved movie without falling into studio-forced traps present in so many other series.
Leaving the theater, you’ll want a dragon of your own or a vacation to the wondrous land shown on screen. We’ll just have to wait for the third film in the series.