No one really saw How To Train Your Dragon coming. Based on a series of children’s books that had struggled to crawl out of the shadow of Harry Potter’s publicity patronus, and from a studio that had been coasting along on the laurels of an increasingly lacklustre formula (Day-Glo anthropomorphic hero + crooked smile + one raised eyebrow = Antz/Bee Movie/Shark Tale/Shrek’s Donkey etc etc), it didn’t exactly have critics giddy with anticipation.
Yet the 2010 fantasy adventure soared – with instantly adorable characters, a narrative vibrancy and a climax as surprising as it was spectacular. Which leaves DreamWorks in an intriguing and precarious new position – they’ve certainly nailed the take-off, but can they keep the franchise flying – freighted as it is now with fan anticipation?
Five years on from HTTYD’s finale, and it’s all change in the small viking village of Berk. Not only are the dragons now fully assimilated into the horn-hatted locals’ way of life (a change and span of time documented over in Cartoon Network’s TV spin-off Dragons: Riders Of Berk), but its people are older, wiser, and far more adventurous. With the dragons and Vikings now successfully transitioned from enemies to the-not-as-weird-as-it-sounds life partners, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon bestie Toothless are on a mission to explore the wider world at their finger/wing-tips.
As their geographical horizons broaden, so do the dangers, and it’s not long before an entirely new dragon dynamic comes into play. First up is the introduction of handsome bad boy Eret (Kit Harington) and his dragon-trapping gang of roughnecks who are all too keen to snag Toothless and his fellow fliers. More worrying is the nefarious, unsettling Big Bad behind the operation, the legendarily ruthless Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who’s amassing a dragon army that could grant him the power he needs to rule over all.
As if that wasn’t threatening enough, the arrival of masked dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett) – herself replete with a mysterious past and some distinctive dragon-wooing ways – will change Hiccup’s life forever. Writer/director Dean DeBlois’ decision to break a cardinal animation rule and age his characters is a savvy one, and one that offers up a tantalising new array of narrative possibilities.
Thankfully, it’s a creative choice that’s fully capitalised upon. With the aid of DreamWorks’ increasingly nuanced art, design and cinematography departments, the world-building on offer is the studio’s most accomplished yet – not only in the expansive new environments and the varied new dragon species, but in the subtle background details as well. Whether in the midst of a heady, Helm’s Deep-esque mega-battle or a serene, stunning sunset glide above the clouds, it’s a world not only lived in, but one you feel a part of. And as for the 3D, the topsy, turvy, stomach-lurching flying scenes boast some of the best stereoscopy since the first movie.
Of course, the world would be nothing without the characters to populate it, and again, DeBlois bravely pushes things forward. Hiccup’s just as dorkily loveable, but this time around he’s more confident and accomplished – and whether gliding through the air, bonding with girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) or reacting to some momentous emotional revelations, Baruchel brings just the right blend of warmth, vulnerability and excitability.
Elsewhere, returning supporting characters are given more space, with a focused and fun sideplot that allows Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse to flex their comedic voice muscles. The villainous newcomers aren’t quite as effective, with Harington’s Eret an intriguing but unexciting addition, and Djimon Hounsou’s villain Drago a character who provides the antagonistic chops, but lacks any fleshed out emotional motivation.
Cate Blanchett’s predictably moving as a Dian Fossey-like dragon-ologist forced into reconnecting with the life she’d thought lost. Her connection to Hiccup offers a dramatic payoff as moving as it is unexpected, with one scene opposite Gerard Butler’s Stoic guaranteed to give you goosebumps.
And Toothless? Well he’s as adorable as ever, and still an utter marvel in creature and character design. How To Train Your Dragon 2 feels like the moment a franchise transcends genres, shifting from family flick to fantasy epic. DreamWorks will always be compared to Pixar – and while it isn’t quite up there with the competition’s best, it’s a worthy challenger. Now that the franchise is hitting altitude, how will 2016’s trilogy closer stick the landing?
More emotional, exhilarating and expansive than the original. DreamWorks finally has a franchise to match its ambition.