For much of its twenty year history, Dreamworks Animation has been fighting an uphill battle against its foes over at Pixar in the arena of digitally animated family fare. It has had its share of financial success (most of the Shrek franchise), and has managed to scrape together some critical acclaim (the first Kung Fu Panda, for example), but despite this they have always felt like the second fiddle. There is one exception to this, though. 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, based on a series of children’s books about a Viking village fighting against a perceived dragon menace until they realize they can coexist as friends, was just as good as (if not better than) some of Pixar’s best work. Boasting incredible animation, a strong voice cast and a wonderful score, its was a surprise gem and a real feather in the hat of Dreamworks’ portfolio. A sequel was inevitable (and Dreamworks has never been shy about sequels) and four years later, the continuing adventures of Hiccup and Toothless have arrived on the silver screen.
Five years have passed since the events of How to Train Your Dragon, and all is well in the village of Berk. With the dragons fully integrated into their society, the freedom of flight has opened up their worldview. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon Toothless spend their days exploring the world and creating maps of the various lands they come across, while his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) prepares to relinquish the throne to his son. Hiccup’s adventures put him on a collision course with a barbarian king named Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) who has a hidden outpost of dragons cared for by Hiccup’s long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) in his conquering sights. The entire village of Berk must band together to defeat this menace and ensure their dragons can continue to live a harmonious chain-free existence.
The highlight of the first film was its incredible animation, and director Dean DeBlois (working solo now that his co-director Chris Sanders is spearheading the Croods franchise) makes sure not to disappoint in that vein. There are more wonderfully designed dragons than ever, with a full film’s worth of flying sequences to dazzle the eyes. DeBlois has not toned down the little touches in favor of the spectacle, though; Toothless is just as much of a giant oversized kitten in disguise as ever, and the film is at its best when these giant lizards are bounding around the background of a scene left to their own devices. It was an ingenious decision to model the movements of these mythical creatures after the actions and dispositions of house pets, as it instinctually bonds the audience to them. The new designs are uniformly excellent, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a feast for the eyes (literally. The animation of the dragons’ eyes is fantastic).
Honestly, the one thing that holds this film back a tad is its pedigree and the inevitable comparisons to its predecessor. While nearly everything about this sequel remains quite good, in practice all but the visuals are just a little worse than How to Train Your Dragon. Going with a more conventional villain leading to a more conventional third act confrontation does hurt the overall story; DeBlois does his best to inject some interest into the Dragon character, but he has a little too much ground to cover in not quite enough time, and the result is an antagonist who is more of a generic black hat than was likely intended or desired. The cast is a bit overstuffed with the inclusion of Blanchett, Hounsou and Kit Harrington (playing one of Drago’s underlings and showing about 20 times the personality of Jon Snow), and adding the new species of dragons on top of that makes it difficult to give all of these new characters and creatures their due. Bigger is certainly better in this case for the visuals, but it does have negative consequences for the story.
Another unexpected negative in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is Jay Baruchel. His higher pitched, nasally and sarcastic voice was perfectly suited for the 15 year old Hiccup as he comes of age, but the fit seems a little less ideal with him aged five years, looking a bit more conventionally handsome as an adult. It is arguable that this criticism is an unfair one, as they were not exactly going to replace Baruchel for the sequel, but the undeniabl sense of cognitive dissonance is difficult to ignore (as is how his accent is a complete departure from that of both his parents). For the most part, the rest of the voice cast is fine in their roles (Housou is especially good in a thankless part), and Baruchel’s delivery is fine for what it is, but he does not fit the part as well as he used to.
It is possible to think of How to Train Your Dragon 2 as a case of too much of a good thing, and while that is a superficially accurate statement, it does undersell this film’s natural charms and visual wizardry. A more conventional and rushed narrative coupled with a less interesting villain puts a glass ceiling in place that DeBlois cannot quite break through. The human characters are not as adept at holding interest the second time around, but the dragons (both new and familiar) are more engaging than ever. Watching them soar through the infinite azure sky buoyed by John Powell’s score is unlikely to get old any time soon. The inevitable third installment will have to do some extra work to prove its worth, but this franchise has not overstayed its welcome yet.