I didn’t expect much from "How to Train Your Dragon." After all, it was a product of Dreamworks Animation, an outfit whose top brass had long abandoned creative risk-taking in favor of soulless pop culture zeitgeist-pandering money-making trite. If that sounds harsh, then I’ve succeeded. So it was a pleasant surprise when "How to Train Your Dragon," a gorgeously-animated and touchingly-told fable about a boy and his pet dragon, that didn’t rely on pop culture gags and big star names, hit theaters in the spring of 2012.
Not only was it a nice reminder that Dreamworks was still capable of producing films that weren’t think-by-committee cash cows but also that a unique creative voice can come from the least expected of places. "How to Train Your Dragon" may not have scaled the commercial heights of some of the studio’s previous works, specifically the "Shrek" franchise, but it was their crowning jewel—a motion picture that deserved to be discussed in the same conversation as Pixar’s best.
I believe that conversation will have to be resurrected once again this year to include "How to Train Your Dragon 2"—a spectacular sequel that successfully carries forward many of the elements that made its predecessor a triumph, and then expands on them in ways very few sequels do. Four years later, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless are now leading examples of the synergistic bond between humans and dragons. Despite being primed for the leadership by his father, Chief Stoick (Gerald Butler), Hiccup is more content spending his time with Toothless, exploring and mapping out undiscovered lands. This rebellious behavior naturally causes friction between the two.
But when Hiccup, girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and pals come upon a ship of dragon trappers in the employ of a war monger named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), it becomes apparent that there are problems far more worrisome than their family differences. Things only get more complicated when a mysterious dragon rider enters the picture.
Unlike most sequels that go bigger and more expansive, the plot of "How to Train Your Dragon 2" isn’t a mere rehash but a natural progression from the first film. That it’s able to buck this trend (expertly poked fun at in "22 Jump Street") makes it all the more refreshing and engaging film. If "How to Train Your Dragon" was "Star Wars," then this is almost certainly the series’ "The Empire Strikes Back." Hiccup doesn’t just look older, but acts the way a teenager would. When we meet him, he’s a young man in search of his identity, curious about what the future holds for him but also unsure of his place in the world. He understands that he isn’t a kid anymore, but a person with responsibilities.
Writer-director Dean DeBlois tackles these themes head-on. He also isn’t afraid to mine darker, more emotional territory such as violence, the nature of evil and the consequences that come as a result. It’s surprising stuff – especially for a big franchise family film – but the risks pay off, resulting in a richer, more rewarding film. It’s the rare sequel that feels both, more far-reaching and more intimate than its predecessor – expanding on the technical, world-building front but honing in on the smaller character-driven moments.
Director: Dean DeBlois
Writers: Dean DeBlois
Principal Cast: (voices of) Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou
Editing: John K. Carr
Cinematography: Roger Deakins (visual consultant)
Music: John Powell
Running time: 102 minutes
Companies: 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks Animation
Rating: PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor