by Philip Price
Having re-watched the first installment of Hiccup and Toothless' adventures the night before venturing into the sequel I wondered how things might hold up. I remembered going into “How to Train Your Dragon” (‘HTTYD’) with nothing in terms of expectations, but looking more for a care-free movie going experience. Clearly, what was found in the film that night was something much more substantial, something special that came completely out of left field and took me by surprise. ‘HTTYD’ not only exuded a fun, adventure story but it developed relationships to the point of authenticity whether they were between Hiccup and his father, his friends or his dragon. In the four years since the release of the first film it feels only more and more good will have built up for it which built a mounting set of expectation for the sequel, one that would pick up in real time and have the glorious advantage of being summer 2014's animated record-setter. Besides a sequel to last year’s “Planes” from Disney that was intended for direct-to-DVD release anyway, Hiccup and Toothless have the season all to themselves and needless to say they take full advantage of it. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (‘HTTYD2’) takes what we enjoyed about the first film and places things on a grander scale, but not because that's necessarily what sequels should do but because with their dragons the people of Berk have a much bigger world to explore. This idea of scope is introduced early when Hiccup skips out on a dragon racing competition and instead has taken Toothless out to explore in hopes of discovering new lands. Hiccup is putting together a map of what he discovers, essentially attempting to piece together the world he lives on. It is an admirable goal and one that shows how much the boy has grown since we last met him. Hiccup's consistent quest to push the envelope and discover the fascinating things around him has not subsided but the scale on which he pursues his inquisitiveness has only been heightened which helps to further define why he is such an interesting and worthy protagonist. He has grown into his lanky build and his just out of bed hairstyle is working much better for him these days, but while all seems well we know there can only be a sequel if trouble is brewing right around the corner. ‘HTTYD2’ does its best to make these consequences not feel like a necessity but more the natural progression of Hiccup's adventures and they do and we are all the better off for it.
Stoick (Gerard Butler) has requested that Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) take his rightful position as Chief of the Isle of Berk, but Hiccup is keen to ignore the issue. He doesn't so much tell his father no as he does completely avoid the subject at all costs. On one of Hiccup's quests for discovery he along with now girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) come across a kind of ice-cave that is being attempted to be scaled by Eret (Kit Harrington) and his crew that work for Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is putting together a dragon army so that he may control what he fears and eliminate all those who don't agree with him and as you can guess Hiccup will not agree with these methods. Complicating things is the fact that within this ice cave dwells a mysterious Dragon Rider (Cate Blanchett) who comes to appreciate Hiccup's skills and opens a new world to him, one much bigger than his own as he so craved, and gives light to the endless possibilities that might come to sway Drago from his bloodlust. Within this tug of war between ideologies though Hiccup witnesses the transcendence of it all through love and affection from the most unexpected of places. I hate to not discuss what the trailers have unfortunately already given away so I won't, but if you've seen any bit of the marketing campaign you can guess where these poignant moments draw from. Hiccup eventually becomes a symbol of protecting the peace, of hope for the future of men and dragon uniting and convincing those around him that war and domination are not the cures for misunderstanding and vengeance. They are, in many ways, deeply rooted human tendencies that address our fear of what we don't know (a theme apparent in several films lately) and tackles them head on by not simply having one universal resolution for these issues, but different ideas from different people with different backgrounds. It is telling of how well writer/director Dean DuBlois (who co-directed the first film) understands his world and his characters as he doesn't allow them to fall into archetypes despite their titles, but instead gives them a balanced and well-rounded perception of what danger there is and how they should approach it.
What is even more impressive about ‘HTTYD2’ is the fact it balances such a large cast of characters and integrates them into this second chapter so effortlessly. Gobber (Craig Ferguson) is back, but more in the capacity of Stoick's right-hand man than Viking mentor. We also have Hiccup and Astrid's co-horts in the fight against all that goes against their pet dragons that this time includes a love triangle. Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) as well as twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) fly in and out of the story in the most natural of ways both in assisting their friends while existing as a whole just outside the main narrative. It is both the gorgeously detailed animation that is naturally leaps and bounds ahead of the first film as well as the energetic voice cast that keep things moving and consistently funny. The match between Snotlout and Fishlegs for Ruffnut's affection is the films winning running gag while the dynamic that has evolved between Toothless and Hiccup provides plenty of the "cute" factor as well as some great visual gags. Beyond an animated films adherence to the rule of having to provide some type of comic relief though ‘HTTYD2’ is really invigorated by its artistic imagery and touches of flair. The shot selections not only re-enforce the grander scale of Hiccup's world, but give the audience moments of pure bliss. There is one in particular where I was able to sit back and for more than a moment soak in what was gracing the IMAX screen in front of me. This scene specifically included Hiccup encountering the mysterious Dragon Rider for the first time and both her more distinguished dragon and Toothless face-off in a gunslinger stance while swooping the clouds around them into a frenzy. It is a frame so consciously put-together and meticulously crafted I couldn't help but include a still below and only give slight reference to the visual prowess of ‘HTTYD2’ because it is truly glorious and while I won't give away any more breathtaking moments, trust that there are plenty.
This brings us around to the question most will ask, though unnecessarily, and that is if it is better than the first film. In a gut-reaction, my mind would lead me to respond with "yes" in that the sequel is something new I have just experienced while the original is something I can reference any time I'd like. The exclusiveness of this second chapter (and it truly is a chapter, that is important) make it feel all the more fresh and vibrant, but I can't say with a satisfactory heart that the first film doesn't offer as many heartfelt moments and interesting character dilemmas as the first. Yes, the second film is more grown up but that is only because our hero has grown up and faces more mature problems. The plot for this new installment is indeed more complicated and even more sophisticated as the first could be reduced to the "junior knows best" scenario where the disapproving, authoritarian figure doesn't understand their underwhelming but thoughtful offspring. Hiccup was largely looked at as a disappointment in the first film by his father who only came to redeem himself in the third act while in ‘HTTYD2’ Stoick represents a much more human figure than the archetype he served in the first film. Does this make the all-around picture better? Maybe, maybe not. What I will say though is that while it is hard to compare the two films in a way that ranks one above the other it would be nice to simply accept them on an even scale. What I mean by that is these films don't seem to exist for the reason of creating a franchise, but more chronicling the transitioning of a boy into a man and next into whatever Hiccup's path holds. This is a franchise more along the lines of the ‘Before’ trilogy than say the ‘Madagascar’ films and while each of the chapters so far have their shining qualities that will outweigh the other in some regard they equal out to be a complete picture that is more fulfilling as opposed to a film series that is only as good as its strongest piece. I enjoy these films because as much as they feel innovative and invigorating upon first viewing in the atmosphere of a theater they still hit you right where they intend when you're sitting on a couch at home. To answer my opening question, yes, the original holds up very well and in regard to that and the pure joy the second film induced I can only try and patiently await where the next chapters in Hiccup and Toothless' saga will take us.