Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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Over its couple of decades in existence, Dreamworks Animation has been something of a second fiddle in the realm of studio animation. If Pixar was pumping out quality emotion filled films that lived up to the mantle of Disney’s best, then Dreamworks was fulfilling the place held by Warner Brothers cartoons. While the studio has had its share of successes, they have primarily come from prioritizing gags and childish humor over genuine, original storytelling. With four franchises under its belt, Dreamworks has been under the persuasion of recycling material, but with its newest sequel, it has found a gem. How to Train Your Dragon 2 still bears the original’s cumbersome title, but it is also every bit as soulful, deepening the relationships of its characters and logically expanding its gorgeously rendered world.

The island of Berk has undergone some sweeping changes ever since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) tapped into his talent for taming dragons. Instead of being at war with the winged creatures, the people of Berk have united with their former foes and now coexist in peace. Dragon riding has taken on a sport of its own, and Hiccup rides his ever faithful Toothless to explore the boundaries of the world far beyond his home. On his most recent venture, he and Astrid (America Ferrara) come to a desolate forest, and a lake with a massive structure of ice in its center. They are met by dragon trappers, who work at the behest of the feared Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a former native of Berk, who plans to conquer all dragons in a quest for power. Thus, Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless and that of his own family takes center stage in order to combat Drago and his armies.

On the whole, How to Train Your Dragon 2 does a very respectable job of expanding on narrative threads that took seed in the first film. While the task of convincing the dragon trappers of the true nature of dragons is a bit of a retread, the major fulcrum lies with Hiccup and his family. A major development comes to the fore as he meets his long lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), is still alive, a guardian of an entire population of dragons. Hiccup learns that his idiosyncratic tendencies are a product of her, and the intimate moments between them and father Stoick (Gerard Butler) are where the heart of the film truly lies. Valka is unfortunately sidelined as the film shifts back towards Drago’s schemes, but the bond between Hiccup and Toothless becomes even more pivotal. Drago himself is too one dimensional in his pursuits, but the ramifications of his actions carry real personal stakes for the heroes.

Along with its reputation for lighter fare, Dreamworks hasn’t been as lauded for its animation, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is never less than beautiful. A great deal of credit must go to the visual consultation of famed cinematographer Roger Deakins. The lighting is thoroughly inspired, especially the diffusion of sunlight during the film’s many stunning flight sequences. Animation naturally allows complete control of every element of screen, and the choreography of the dragon riders in flight is both compositionally clean and immersive. The action set pieces are also well implemented, and never simply an excuse to conjure empty excitement. Regardless of some of its minor flaws, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a thoroughly satisfying follow up, a precise template for what every sequel, animated or otherwise, should do.

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~ by romancinema on June 22, 2014.

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