A Totally Biased Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

The perfect sequel

When DreamWorks released the original How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, it was, surprisingly, well-received both critically and commercially, and, most importantly, made it cool to just give into that boyhood dream of having a pet dragon. The characters, the design, the action… oh, the ACTION… For an animated film that is, for all intents and purposes, a cartoon, the action was stellar. Hell, it even had better action that that latest X-Men movie

So, when rumblings began about the sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, it goes without saying that expectations were, and have been, at an absolute fever pitch. And I’m very, very pleased to write these following words: it delivers on every single one of them.

The sheep get the laughs rolling. And they never really stop.

The sheep get the laughs rolling. And they never really stop.

Five years have passed since the island of Berk was changed forever by the antics and the heroics of the pipsqueak named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, and his fiercely loyal companion, the ever-lovable Night Fury, Toothless. The Viking village is now the idyllic picture of Viking and dragons living in perfect harmony, where Dragon races, a kind of bizarre mix of Quidditch and capture the flag, are the newest craze, and where Hiccup and Toothless have taken to filling in the edges of the Viking map by exploring the reaches beyond the mists surrounding Berk, all the while testing innumerable new devices and tools. However, as they tend to, things don’t stay perfect for long and Hiccup, all the while fending off his overbearing and newly proud father, Stoick the Vast, and his imposed sense of duty to become the next chief, amidst fighting off poachers who are snatching up dragons in the name of a tyrant named Drago Bludvist, pronounced phonetically as “blood fist.”

Read it again. Drago. Bludvist.

It’s almost a caricature of a name, but when you finally see him, you’ll find he lives up to it. And it’s one of the best qualities of the film. You know you’re watching a cartoon, but even so, you buy into the world and the suspension of disbelief is easy to pull off. It’s got a gritty realism that allows for a gravity and sense of danger and dread you may not otherwise have, and the films tension comes from some very interesting, and brilliant, places and plot devices.

Seriously. How cool is that?!

Seriously. How cool is that?!

That being said, it’s quite difficult right now to figure out where to begin. It’s 10:44 p.m. as I type this, and I’ve just gotten home after seeing the 8 p.m. “midnight premier” on Thursday, the night before the film is “officially released.” There are so many aspects to the film that are overwhelming right now that I don’t know where to start… The special effects, the music, the dialogue, the story, the design, the casting, the music… God, the music…

John Powell knocked this shit out of the park. Again. Since it’s release, I’ve said the music for the first film was one of the things that truly set it apart, with fantastic themes that are hummable, catchy, and epic when the scene called for it. Call me crazy, but I just can’t quite recall any other themes from some of the recent animated films I’ve seen, and, frankly, after experiencing music of this caliber, TWICE, in a film like this, I think other animated studios need to rethink their plan of attack for the sonic soundscape (yes, I’m talking to you, Pixar. Fucking Randy Newman? Gag). Hats off to Powell for his work, because it’s fantastic.

It’s unfortunate that the story is so good, because as much as I’d love to tip my hand and give away a few of the surprises, I’ll exercise some discipline and refrain from giving anything away, but trust me when I say that the surprises are an absolute treat, and the places it takes us as an audience are both a splendor to behold and to experience from the eyes of the characters, something the filmmakers did a wonderful job doing. Heartbreak, joviality, betrayal, glory, triumph… It hits many different notes and succeeds with every one of them, giving us a complete tour de force of the senses that both awes and captivates us. Action and gripping emotional drama are both punctuated perfectly with well-paced and well-placed jokes and gags, and although many of them are revisited, they’re never the same gag as they were before and convey the arc of the story perfectly. The new characters are both crazy and well-imagined, fitting into the world without seeming forced, and it’s with very little effort that they evoke emotions from us. It sucks right now to not be able to say too much more, but Hiccup meets someone very interesting, a close and kindred spirit, and seeing the different sides to established characters gives this an emotional depth and quality absent from movies considered much better.

Almost every single aspect of the design is beautiful.

Almost every single aspect of the design is beautiful.

“Tour de force of the senses” could’ve summed up the entire review. The animation is of a quality I have never, in my entire life, seen before. Characters have aged so convincingly that you forget they’re not actors who’ve grown five years older. Hair looks and moves so naturally you wonder what product they’re using in it. Eyes dilate so brilliantly and seemlessly that you barely notice. Tears gather, drip and glimmer so realistically that you never stop to consider the shaders and rendering software used to create any of it. The particle effects, explosions and other special effects look more real than some traditional, in-camera work in bigger budgeted blockbusters. You don’t stop to ponder or think about the work that went into creating it. It just IS. It’s truly a testament to the minds working at DreamWorks that they’ve been able to craft such an elegant, beautiful, colorful, dynamic film that, for my money, challenges even the reigning KING of CGI-Animation, Pixar, for the crown. Absolutely astonishingly amazing animation. Breathtaking in every sense of the word. A magnificently transcendental piece of art.

Yes. It’s REALLY that pretty!

He's a better actor than some A-listers who have won Oscars. No bullshit.

He’s a better actor than some A-listers who have won Oscars. No bullshit.

And what kind of review would this be if I didn’t heap praise onto what makes this movie so good? The dragons. Toothless, of obvious and particular note, is one of the fantastically animated characters of all-time, in any cartoon, movie, show, game, whatever, that I’ve ever seen. He is so brimming with life and vitality and personality that even as I write this, it’s difficult for me to comprehend he’s nothing more than a collection of polygons and shading tools, with textures drawn and painted on by, I’d assume, countless artists and brought to life by countless more keyframe animators. He is an absolute triumph of the medium, and steals the eye in every frame he’s in. He is at once noble, majestic, hilarious and also dangerous. There’s true power within Toothless and, again, without giving anything away, his character is brought to places he’s never been before, and challenged in ways that make the story and drama especially dire.

The same quality of animation could be spoken for on account of all the characters, but it’s simply the sad truth that, to some extent, Toothless overshadows them. For the most part. The established teens from the first film, all now young adults, are the same affectionately annoying, or annoyingly affectionate, people that they were before, and they’re all given something to do, and generally to great comedic effect. Kristen Wiig’s Ruffnut, in particular, garnered a considerable laugh almost every time she spoke. Hiccup and Astrid are a convincing couple, and both actors shine in roles they seem, especially in Hiccups case, more fully grown into. Despite his demeanor and, comparatively, diminutive size, his mental acuity and sheer prowess of will and determination makes him a believable protagonist and an empathic hero in the story, even regardless of the magnificence of Toothless. It is, however, worth taking the moment to make special note of Gerard Butler, cast mostly for his ability to grunt and say manly things (on top of being a bona fide HAWTY), who is especially effective here as Stoick, turning in the surprise performance of the film, and once again, without giving anything away, believably taking the burliest character in the series and turning in a truly tender and emotionally captivating performance.

It’s a movie that has it all. Sensational action, sensitive drama, a superb score, stunning visuals, splendid comedy, and, most importantly, a superior story, full of wonder, sacrifice, loyalty, and even a fucking musical number… There’s even a Godzilla reference!

Eat your heart out Frozen

Now the hard part… Counting down the days till How to Train Your Dragon 3… Going to be a very, very long two years.

PROs and CONs+ Strong performances

+ Tremendous production across all aspects

+ Improves and builds upon the original

+ Toothless!

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