REVIEW: How to Train Your Dragon 2 [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: June 13th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Dean DeBlois
Writer(s): Dean DeBlois / Cressida Cowell (book series)

“What you’re searching for is in here”

With ten children’s books already published—and two more planned—Cressida Cowell has given Dreamworks animation a ton of material to adapt whether adhered to religiously or not. Their success on How to Train Your Dragon caught many off guard while earning a place in the hearts of children and adults alike on the way to two Oscar nominations and a television series spin-off. The announcement of a sequel was therefore inevitable, the idea to craft it into a trilogy unsurprising as well besides the fact that original co-writer and co-director Dean DeBlois was the one to suggest it. His agreeing to return and takeover both responsibilities in a solo capacity hinged on expanding the series to three with the second installment providing an opportunity to widen its scope past Berk to the entirety of the North Sea.

Opening five years later onto a Viking village much more advanced than the one we had left, How to Train Your Dragon 2 can still be appreciated without having seen the first. Our narrator Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) introduces us to Berk much like before only with new adjectives to help describe their modernized co-habitation with dragons. Knowing how this situation came about is recommended of course, but not a prerequisite like you’d assume. We get the soaring crane shot over the many homes, eventually settling on these beasts of the sky engaged in fun and games rather than no-holds-barred flame-throwing destruction. Everyone has a dragon now straight on up the ladder to Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), riding them into battle, racing them in competition, or simply keeping them for companionship like the dogs and cats they mimic.

With Berk’s old traditions already overhauled, a ready-made conflict waiting to be solved inside their doors no longer exists. In fact, if the Vikings played their cards right they might have been able to live long lives devoid of fighting now that their archenemies were domesticated. No, curiosity brings new trouble their way through the sponge of Hiccup’s brain always wanting to learn more about the world around him. While everyone contentedly basks in the peace at home, he’s out with his Night Fury Toothless drawing maps of the uncharted territory they discover. It is here in the distance that he and girlfriend/warring partner Astrid (America Ferrera) find trapper Eret (Kit Harington) telling tales about his vicious employer Drago (Djimon Hounsou) building a dragon army and the whispers of another dragon rider seeking to stop him.

It’s a wonderful evolution of the mythology so children won’t get too confused too soon, moving from a nuclear family in the first to an extended one introducing people of another community with the same singular goal. Convenience isn’t completely absent considering the identity of the new dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett)—which I believe the trailers expose in a hasty move better served by surprise—but that contrivance does allow for some well-placed darkness and rising stakes. Because the one thing about animated family films that gets tiring in franchises willing to push beyond a single installment is an inability to dramatically progress with death and true emotion. DeBlois softens the blow whenever he can, but give him credit for not ignoring our youth’s capacity to feel sorrow and appreciate the heroism spawned by inevitable tragedy.

The first film prepared us by showing consequence of action whether Hiccup maiming Toothless before befriending him or losing a foot himself after the climactic battle against the dragon queen. Not everything was rosy, nor should it when you’re dealing with Vikings who blatantly state that war is what they want. Peace is nice, but it breeds complacency. A chief strives to protect his clan by fearlessly going into battle and although Hiccup doesn’t believe he’s ready for that responsibility, he’s the one who leaves home to find Drago and explain Berk’s dragons won’t be stolen. This is the story where he, Astrid, and even Toothless become adults—growing into positions of birthright with the compassion, morality, and fidelity of good against evil. Part One was about finding the courage within, Part Two using it to lead.

There’s still a ton of comedy, though, so don’t think this is some deeply serious follow-up that forgets what made its predecessor great. Hiccup and Astrid’s eccentric clan of young warriors return for goofy shenanigans and laughter-inducing over-the-top romantic overtones as Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) vie for the affections of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) while her brother Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) mocks them all and she fawns over Eret. More dragons are introduced to expand the class systems of big and small and allow for even more physical humor in how they all act like cute puppies when not turning fierce on a dime in combat. The flying scenes are awe-inspiring, animation expertly detailed in its stylized cartoonishness, and Drago’s villain a menacing force of humanity’s evil that was absent in the first.

This is the How to Train Your Dragon world’s coming out party, sharing its hidden treasures outside of Berk. Hiccup and Toothless’ trajectories mirror each other’s again as both seemingly playful and harmless adventurers bare their teeth when it comes to protecting those they love. We meet the mammoth dragon king counterparts to the last film’s queen and learn how leadership is about the size of your heart, not muscles. It may not be as tight a story due to reaching further from home and introducing new characters, but it ensures every new revelation has purpose in the grand scheme of Hiccup’s metamorphosis into the Viking no one believed he’d become. Packed with action, humor, love, and horror, DeBlois makes good on the previous film’s promise of complexity—always entertaining but never talking down to its audience in the process.

[1] Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless make plans for their next adventure. How to Train Your Dragon 2 © 2014 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Astrid confronts the foreboding Drago (Djimon Hounsou). How to Train Your Dragon 2 © 2014 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Astrid (America Ferrara) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) face their toughest challenge ever. How to Train Your Dragon 2 © 2014 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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