Monday, June 30, 2014

Silver Screen Selections: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Dean DeBlois
Released: June 13th, 2014
Genre: Animation / Fantasy


It's been five years since Hiccup and Toothless successfully united dragons and vikings on the island of Berk. While Astrid, Snoutlout and the rest of the gang are challenging each other to dragon races (the island's new favorite contact sport), the now inseparable pair journey through the skies, charting unmapped territories and exploring new worlds. When one of their adventures leads to the discovery of a secret ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace. Now, Hiccup and Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and dragons.

[From Metacritic.]


As sequel to one of my favorite animated movies, How to Train Your Dragon 2 had some comically oversized shoes to fill. For the most part, it does so with aplomb, continuing the first movie's tradition of seamlessly melding comedy and action with more tender moments, but there are a few snags along the way.

This film is heavier on the action and lighter on the quiet, character-building moments of the first. This is to be expected with most of the important relationships (Toothless and Hiccup, Hiccup and Stoick, Hiccup and Astrid) now firmly established. That's not to say that there aren't such moments. A new character with ties to both Hiccup and Stoick is introduced in the film's second act, and with this introduction comes a number of the movie's best scenes, many joyous, some subdued, all reminiscent of the original How to Train Your Dragon.

Like its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is mostly light-hearted and hopeful. There's a lot of comedy, much of it from a hilarious side plot starring Ruffnut, the female half of the twin duo, but the film does have a dab of tragedy. One moment in particular treads darker paths than most western animated films would dare.

Toothless and Hiccup are as adorkable as ever. Hiccup trades witty quips with friends and villains alike while Toothless gambols about, alternating between cute and ferocious as the situation demands. The duo is a little more saccharine than in the first movie, and Hiccup takes his empathy and pacifism to new levels, sometimes to the detriment of his established character. Though Hiccup's penchant for sarcasm remains intact, I sometimes miss his teenage cynicism.

Visually, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sets a high bar for computer animated films. DreamWorks employed groundbreaking new animation software in the development of this movie, and it's evident with every movement and expression. How to Train Your Dragon 2 also employs gorgeous color palettes, even in its more solemn scenes, and the lighting seems both natural and dramatically appropriate.

Even darker scenes show an impressive display of color.

How to Train Your Dragon 2's updated aesthetic does have its victims. A few of the updated character models stray a little too far from the first movie's designs. Astrid, in particular, appears to have had all of her edge sanded away. Though her personality remains mostly the same, a softer, more rounded face and an entirely different eye color separate her two models.

Before and after.

Most of the other characters have aged more naturally. Hiccup, while less gangly and awkward than in his teenage years, retains most of the notable facial features of his original model. Even his freckle placement seems to have survived the transition. The other twenty-somethings are easily recognizable despite a few changed hairstyles and a smattering of facial hair, and Stoick and Gobber remain true to their original models, albeit with more gray streaked through their beards.

Is it just me, or did Astrid and Hiccup trade chins between movies?

How to Train Your Dragon 2's biggest weakness is its slavish devotion to cramming its story within the limits of traditional kids' movie running time. A lot happens in this film, too much for an hour and forty-five minutes to really do it justice. As a result, a well-paced first half gives way to a rushed finale exactly when the movie could benefit most from slowing down. The concluding action sequence does not have quite the same impact as the first movie's battle against the Red Death despite much greater stakes, and a few scenes leading up to the final confrontation jar, with solemn moments followed almost immediately by out-of-place comedy. It's not enough to sour the beautiful first half, but it did leave me wistful for what could have been had the movie been granted an extra twenty minutes.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 may be a bit weaker than its predecessor, but it's still a brilliant, beautiful film that deserves your attention. My advice: go see it in theatres, if only to bask in the big screen glow of its animation.

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