Hiccup, Toothless and a boatload of Vikings are back in How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the pleasant surprise that was the first feature. For those out of the loop, or perhaps merely needing a catch-up, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the teenaged son of his seaside village’s chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). Meager in size compared to his burly neighbors, Hiccup breaks away from the tradition of slaying every dragon that comes to town, instead learning to sooth the beasts, even befriend them. The latter happens between Hiccup and Toothless, an obsidian colored dragon that appears to have the soul of my cat Mr. Bear; hungry, mischievous and fond of a scratch to the head.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 begins a few years after the previous feature, though the starting ground is fresh. The village has taken in dragons of all types into their community, now having their own pseudo-Quidditch matches atop them. Hiccup is happy, if unsure of himself. While his friends and cohorts playfully enjoy their new normal, our protagonist is off discovering; himself and the world. Despite earning the utmost respect of his peers, Hiccup doesn’t feel he knows himself and now maps out the edges of the world with his fiancé.
On one outing, Hiccup comes across the path of a crew of dragon-hunters who work for the dangerous Drago (Djimon Hounsou). Able to barely escape, Hiccup learns from his father that Drago once killed swarms of men via an army of dragons. Stoick claims that war is coming and plots to protect his people. Hiccup perceives peace as an option and, against pop’s demands, flees to procure a less lethal means of action. Along the way, Hiccup meets even more dragon-wranglers, including a mysterious woman whose way with the winged-ones surpasses even his own talents.
Dean DeBlois takes the sole helm with How to Train Your Dragon 2; writing and directing it without his former creative partner Chris Sanders. He has a deft hand with storytelling, presenting an epic canvas that never strains to feel huge in scale. DeBlois is able to achieve this due to the humanity of his characters, many of which seem at first glance like one-note tropes. A fine example is Stoick, the bulky behemoth who is prone to shouting his orders and expecting those that listen to obey without question. Midway though the film, somebody returns to Stoick’s life unexpectedly and nearly every reaction and decision DeBlois crafts for him is a tiny surprise, even as it remains honest in execution.
DeBlois’s presentation of the action beats have a sense of place. Every dive through the clouds with the loveable Toothless is exhilarating, with the varying size of the titular creatures always remaining relevant. When the big ones, and I mean big ones, pop on screen, there is real awe to their presence. Adding to this are the stakes DeBlois brings to the table. This is a dangerous place these Vikings inhabit and that fact isn’t skipped over do it being a family film.
All of this reaches an extra pitch with the stupendous John Powell score. The core theme for the films is a soaring, emotional tune that is reworked in several ways in the new movie, with all of the variations weaving that special magic.
The only real misstep the How to Train Your Dragon 2 makes is in its rather generic villain. Drago allows for compelling narratives to spring from him, yet remains a bit ho-hum himself. For the amount of screen-time devoted to Drago, there needs to be more meat on the bone.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.