June 24, 2014

Review: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' Strikes Back

DreamWorks Animation How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 successfully recreates the fun and magic of the original with inventive animation and an emotional narrative about the power of good and family. All the adventure starts off quickly as the exposition and fundamentals have already been established. DreamWorks Animation and writer/director Dean DeBlois—working on his own without original co-writer/director Chris Sanders—firmly plant the story and action to further build this dragon mythology, exploring their psychology, and ability to work with Vikings sublimely through emotional storytelling and visually stunning scenes of flight and battle.

The amusingly diverse cast returns and establishes our fantasy world with Jay Baruchel (as Hiccup), Gerard Butler (as Stoick), and America Ferrera (as Astrid) all returning and joined by Cate Blanchett, balancing Nordic drama with playful humour. New characters and interactions are used to further build this world and expand the greater dragon universe. While there are less emotional stakes and a solid through-line about acceptance in their father/son struggle, HTTYD2 eschews recycling its narrative in favour of exploring the extension of character growth through a buildup to war.

What's more remarkable is the development of the dragons, particularly Toothless the black fury, and there unique personalities as not only pets but viable beings, beasts, and characters themselves. The greater Viking and dragon world is anchored by an amusing supporting voice work where Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig come in and out and are allowed to add to the scope and big feeling of this universe without ever supplanting the main characters and dragons.

Like its predecessor, the sequel threatens to be an overly conventional kids' film but is elevated by DeBlois sharply self-aware scripting and direction coupled with stunning digital cinematography (aided by visual consultant Roger Deakins) and John Powell's pulsing musical score.

DeBlois has called HTTYD2 his The Empire Strikes Back and it's easy to see what he means as both films expand and build their cinematic universe without really layering or deepening the overall development of its characters' stories or arcs yet satisfying building upon a greater sense of adventure. Grounded by the emotional journey of the first film and thoughtfully recreating its highs, the animated sequel balance humour with war and dragon mythology deftly. It is a crowd-pleasing, delightful journey made by its balance of action and character.

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