Dreamworks Animation, long lambasted as a second-tier Pixar Studios, kind of came out of nowhere with How to Train your Dragon in 2010. They’d made plenty of good films before, but their bread-and-butter was slapstick comedy and verbal punnery and didn’t hold a candle to the subtle artfulness and nuanced emotion of their competitor’s finest. Perhaps luckily for them, HtTyD came out at the dawn of Pixar’s currently, and sadly, still continuing descent into competence. Although it’s faced competition from Disney’s assumed new second-silver age , these Disney films haven’t yet touched the elegant grandeur and beauty of How to Train your Dragon, the second best mainstream animated film of the decade after Pixar’s decade-beginning (or decade-capping) masterpiece Toy Story 3. As a result of its success, it was almost impossible not to believe in the likelihood of future sequels, and, although the company took longer than expected for it to be released, a sequel is here as expected. The rule of thumb would suggest inferiority, but let’s not jump to conclusions.
Ultimately, the film isn’t nearly as fresh or lively as its immediate predecessor. It lacks, above all, some of the pure, immediate visual excitement of a film birthed on the simple elegance of a winding camera giving light to that long filmic-mistake of attempting to convey flight. Elsewhere, there’s nothing as affecting as the subtle, quiet bonding of main characters Hiccup (human …well, Jay Baruchel at least) and Toothless (dragon), the core of the first film and the quiet majesty that made it so special. Perhaps this is the necessity of sequels, but there’s a simple beauty to a movie about a boy and his dragon that is lost here. In terms of pure non-narrative filmmaking revelry and the power of images and sounds that create vision and dreams which lie outside of, and transcend, narrative logic or plot, this film is a step-down. I will give it, at least, that it is much more dense than the first film, with all manner of intricately designed motions and characters in the background, to the point where the film might work as a better study of animation if it foregrounded its background elements and let them loose with fire and fury. Alas, it does not.
But there’s a trade-off: in a more traditional narrative sense, the film is resoundingly superior to the first film, if less wonderfully impressionist in its in-the-moment joy and non-narrative youthful “just hanging out” loveliness. The reason is simple: things grow. There’s a sense here that things have progressed in the Viking world since the first film, with expanded geography and new dynamics between characters, and the film ably plays on this. The narrative, at least mostly, is sufficiently different from the first film, and surprisingly darker, with a sense of consequence and danger that doesn’t lull us into complacency and a sense that all will be well. The narrative, as it is, has loner Hiccup, a young dragon rider I suspect to be in his early 20s, discover off-shore pirates catching dragons for a dragon army lead by a man bent on taking over the world. Naturally Hiccup and his dragon return to his village to warn his father Stoic, who is grooming Hiccup for leadership against his anti-social will. Stoic remembers the man from his past and knows violence is the only answer, while ever-contentious Hiccup resolves to use peaceful dialogue instead. Admirably, the film sidesteps many of the tense relationships in the first film, most notably the one between Hiccup and his father Stoic, the chief of the village who wants him to be a fighter and dragon killer. The film begins along those lines but we come to see that the relationship between them has truly progressed, and both characters have evolved from the first film. A new, friendlier character is also introduced to strong effect, and it too adds a dynamic relationship between the characters that doesn’t play out as expected.
As the film progresses, it to some extent comes to approximate a traditional fantasy narrative, albeit an extremely well-made one with genuine emotional artistry and a notable challenge to the assumed dynamic between Hiccup and Toothless late in the film. If there’s a flaw, the villain is quite poor. Even beyond his problematic racial exoticism (he has darker, greyish skin, dreadlocks, and a deep voice given by an African actor, Djimon Hounsou), the villain lacks depth.
However, as a pure spectacle, which the film ultimately remains, it gets top-marks and reminds that animated films, in their uninhibited camera and visual prowess unequaled by live-action, are far more capable of approximating classic “epics” more than modern live-action films. Visually, the film is gorgeous, capturing everything from a still-present thrill of flight as well as a genuine sense of exploration and thrill of discovery to small nuances such as facial hair stubble (mocked in the film too) growing on the film’s teenage characters. The film continues to prove the profound possibility of animated filmmaking and the potential for unhinged pure exhilaration and creating films which don’t necessarily require a sense of narrative logic and can instead shoot straight for pure emotional logic that, at their best, can capture dreams and nightmares at their purest in their distance from everyday life.
This film doesn’t reach those heights. In fact, in its focus on conventional narrative at the expense of pure emotional visual affect, it favors great traditional storytelling more than playing around with pure filmmaking to explore something beyond its own narrative heights. The only point where it does this is a mesmerizing scene where a masked, tribal figure pokes through the clouds for unknown purposes and piques a flying Hiccup’s interest. It plays less like a narrative and more like a dream, and it is here, perhaps appropriately, where the film pokes its head through the clouds of traditional narrative filmmaking and aims for pure untamed quiet beauty. This is the image the film works toward and never recaptures, but that’s praise with faint damning for once. This is a very strong film, perhaps even a great one, and a film worthy of attention from just about any age group.