The days of Pixar being top animated dog are long gone. Whilst they plan their future tent pole projects years apart, tough and now equally respected competitor DreamWorks have taken up their space in family viewings. Already gathering their own classic catalogue with the likes of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda there was also that refreshingly wonderful surprise with scales; How To Train Your Dragon. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ loose adaptation of the popular kids book dropped out of the sky like an untamed Night Fury with a clear flight plan for a franchise. Now four years later, those hopes are realised with DeBlois returning alone with a sequel that soars past its predecessor in almost every way.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 reunites us with the rocky isle of Birk and its inhabitants five years after Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) met his wingman, Toothless. Now the locals are older and a little wiser, their views on dragons changed and now man and beast are living in harmony, tossing sheep around like Quidditch quaffles. It’s happy times for Birk but not for its local hero; Hiccup is hitting 20-something and like his best mate, wants to spread his wings in search of adventure. Of course this puts anything else on the back burner, including the duty of tribe chief that his father, Stoic (Gerard Butler) is keen to pass on to him. It’s a tussle with responsibility that couldn’t come at a worse time as dastardly dragon ruler, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou) comes riding in on the back of a fire-breathing army set for destruction. But unlike before, Hiccup’s efforts of negotiation and peace-making fall on deaf ears, and soon our hero is forced to face a deadly foe and in the process accept the duty he was reluctant to take but born to have.
Unlike DreamWorks’ previous efforts, it’s clear that this a series that fittingly ages with those that watch it. The first lesson from DeBlois and Sanders was about accepting those that are different, and the varying views you can have that might not be the right ones. Same old, same old really. But its sequel smartly builds on that, suggesting that in the case of Bludvist there are some things you can’t change and that accepting responsibility is the only option. It’s certainly mature subject for a family film but DeBlois handles it with the same refreshing wit and emotional consideration he did last time round, wielding an array of tools at his disposal in the form of characters both old and new, with Hiccup’s estranged and thought to be dead mother (voiced by Cate Blanchett) being looped in with the latter.
This is another section to the story that adds to the mature weight of the sequel and helps expand this fantasy world in the process. By reuniting our hero with his mother in what is easily one of the films most stunning sequences, we open to a dozen new breeds of dragons and staggering vistas that lie beyond Birk. It’s a playground for the CGI wizards to fly around in and shows, just like everything else how much the film has advanced . Yet again the films greatest asset is once again Toothless, a wonderfully realised character who growls, giggles and jokes around with Hiccup, sharing all the characteristics of a lizard and a border terrier, Hiccup races through wisps of cloud and over seas that burst with life and colour, all on the back of Toothless that making that rarely purchased IMAX ticket worthwhile. The real eye-watering events are when they’re crammed with dragons. Seeing our hero touch down in a safe haven for the winged creatures is truly breathtaking and even more so when they go into battle in the final act but the journey to get there is the one time that the film fumbles in its execution.
Without going into details HTTYD2 braves the same field as the likes Bambi, The Lion King and Up but lacks the courage to stand by its decision. When the film goes for its emotional gut punch it certainly makes an impact but it doesn’t last. Instead, it feels like the subject is quickly brushed over by the epic showdown, almost admitting that what has been laid out might not be a bit too much for the youngsters to take in. This is only a slight hiccup for Hiccup’s second training session though, as overall How To Train Your Dragon 2 stands as probably one of the best summer entries this year. Developing on an already brilliant take about one boy and his dragon, DreamWorks don’t look to be slipping up any time soon and it’s great to see. Here endeth the lesson.