Friday, June 20, 2014

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

These days, everything gets a sequel.  If a film makes enough money to convince the studio they can make profit with another one, another one will be made regardless of whether the narrative of the original demands it.  But, once in a while, a film will come along that practically feels like it needs another movie.

How To Train Your Dragon was one of those films.  Though it told a fairly complete tale, HTTYD also introduced audiences to a rich world that we all wanted to see more of.  After spending the first film bonding with them, everyone wanted to go on more adventures with Hiccup and Toothless.  If ever there was a Dreamworks film that seemed to justify getting the full franchise treatment, How To Train Your Dragon was it.

And it got it.  And now, four years, several short films, two television seasons, one holiday special, and one arena spectacular later, How To Train Your Dragon 2 has finally arrived.

Prior to the film's release, HTTYD2 director Dean DeBlois compared the sequel to The Empire Strikes Back.  That's a fairly bold claim, considering how highly regarded Empire is among film fans.  However, it's an apt comparison, as the tonal shift between the original HTTYD and its sequel is quite similar.  HTTYD2 tells a darker and more adult story than the original.  The characters are older, and they deal with more serious issues than what was seen in the first film.  As a result, HTTYD2 has been criticized for losing some of the charm of the original film and, while I don't disagree, I feel like that was a deliberate choice.  The Empire Strikes Back told a more mature and less linear story than A New Hope, but as a result it wasn't quite as fun and straight-forward as it's predecessor, and the same is true here.

HTTYD2 is largely successful in going to a darker place than the original while still feeling like the same world, but it does lack the strong emotional throughline that helped make the original so captivating.  The core of How To Train Your Dragon was watching Hiccup and Toothless bond with each other and become an unstoppable team.  Without a similar core guiding its narrative, HTTYD2 struggles a bit to get its plot settled for the first act of the film.  Fortunately, once all the cards are in play and the plot really gets moving, HTTYD2 is able to reach a place just as emotionally strong as the first film, even if it takes a while to get there.

All the characters from the first film return, and it's fun to see how everyone has changed in the five years between films.  Hiccup and his father Stoick remain firmly in the spotlight, though most of the supporting cast, including Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid, are largely kept around only to provide comic relief between the more serious and tense moments of the film.  As with the first movie, however, the real star of the movie isn't any of the human cast but rather Toothless, Hiccup's trusty Night Fury.  Able to switch between acting like a playful puppy dog and a ferocious beast at will, Toothless remains one of the most appealing and entertaining characters to ever appear in a computer animated film.  The handful of new characters all fit fairly seamlessly into the world, though the villain, while extremely menacing, also lacks depth.

The original How To Train Your Dragon was already an impressive visual spectacle, but HTTYD2 absolutely blows it out of the water.  The level of detail has been cranked up way above anything that was done in the first film, and many of the new locations are incredible in their scope and design.  The animation for the human characters is startlingly lifelike at times, and even the large complex dragons move in believable ways without ever looking stiff or mechanical.  This is easily one of the best looking and most polished animated films ever released.

Also returning from the first film is composer John Powell.  The darker tone of the movie demands a darker score, and Powell delivers on that promise perfectly, with brooding new character themes and haunting choir accompaniment employed frequently.  There's still plenty of high-energy score to accompany the battle scenes, however, and even some swashbuckling pirate music thrown in for good measure.  Overall though, the score still retains the Celtic-influenced sound of the original.  Familiar themes from the first film's score are expertly and frequently woven into the score, providing a strong sense of continuity between the two films.  The score finds a perfect balance of keeping things familiar while also introducing plenty of new material.

Ultimately, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a successful sequel.  Does it outdo the original?  No.  But it is a fantastic continuation of the world established in the first film, and aging the characters five years allows the film to go in a more serious and mature direction than the original could.  Toothless remains as lovable as ever, and there's still plenty of fancy flying sequences and exciting action-packed battles to enjoy.  Though it probably won't ever reach the same revered status that The Empire Strikes Back has achieved, How To Train You Dragon 2 does serve as an excellent second act to the series, and is easily one of Dreamwork's best films.  I eagerly anticipate seeing what adventures await Hiccup and Toothless next!