THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. THE GODFATHER: PART II. ALIENS. TERMINATOR II: JUDGEMENT DAY. TOY STORY 2 and 3. What do all these films have in common? They are sequels that arguably surpassed the originals. Joining this rare company is writer-director Dean DeBlois’ HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2. Exhilarating, bold, and breathtaking, there simply aren’t enough adjectives I can use to describe this superlative, highly anticipated sequel.
It’s been several years since young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriended Toothless the dragon and brought humans and flying lizards together in peace. Now that Hiccup is on the cusp of adulthood and has ample time to explore both love – with strong-willed badass Astrid (America Ferrera) – and land, his father chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) begins grooming him to take over. Reticent to answer the call, Hiccup finds himself on an existential quest. But he is waylaid by the arrival of the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of a gang of dragon trappers who don’t share his why-can’t-we-just- get-along philosophy. Our hero’s journey is not going to be easy, and there will be many surprising discoveries along the way that will test the pair’s special bond.
While this still echoes a basic “boy and his dog” story, DeBlois has built out the universe surrounding it. He wisely (and quite brilliantly) has made things darker, deeper and more complex. The poignancy of these characters’ decisions reverberates throughout many sequences. Better yet, thanks to the subtle skill of the animators, you can see it in their eyes. The characters and expressions feel real without treading anywhere near the uncanny valley. In tone and atmosphere, the filmmaker achieves a perfect balance between light and heavy. For as many emotionally stirring sequences as he has (and he has many that will make it rain on your face), DeBlois is agile at picking us back up with something lighter, softer – and not at breakneck speed either. Plus, for being a second chapter in an intended trilogy, this doesn’t feel like a stereotypical “middle part.” This has enough gravitas to stand alone – a true feat and key ingredient for an astounding sequel.
Now back to the animation team – all of whom have done a phenomenal job on this picture. Simply put, this is a gorgeous, immersive feature. You’re bound to forget you’re watching animation. Flying sequences conjure a tangible, visceral feeling of thrills and excitement. They rank second only to Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Even the 3D works to brilliant effect. Though I still don’t love some of the character design (Baruchel’s voice seems out of place on Hiccup, and Toothless looks too much like Stitch to be considered totally original), my issues melted away thanks to how stunning this film looks.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is close to being a masterpiece; however, it’s not completely free of small flaws. While the narrative maintains a steady balance of humor and heart, it’s not as smooth and contoured as I would have hoped. You can see where acts begin and end throughout the entire picture. And, not that it’s a bad thing, but parents of small children (say younger than 4) might want to hold off showing this to their kids until later as the film’s thematic material may fly over their heads. Nevertheless, the genuine, heartfelt messages about compassion, forgiveness and love are what kids (and adults) should be watching.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 opens on June 13, is rated PG and receives 4.5 out of 5 stars from Courtney.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com and SassyMamaInLA.com. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.