Computer graphic images look great, but they haven’t completely crossed the uncanny valley yet, triggering responses in the back of viewers’ minds that something they’re seeing isn’t real. That’s why animation is really in the zone right now and will be for the foreseeable future; when everything in a movie is a cartoon, nothing looks cartoonish when compared to something else in the film. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of those fantastical and brilliant films that deserve to be animated. There are no distractions here. Audiences just have to sit back and enjoy a wonderful story with a grownup message that all ages can appreciate.
Five years after the events of How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is now 20, and his father, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), is eying him to take over as the new clan chief. Reluctant to accept the new role, Hiccup spends his days mapping the outlying lands, riding his faithful dragon Toothless. On one of his excursions, Hiccup discovers a group of dragon trappers who work for a mysterious and ruthless leader, Drago Bloodfist (voiced by Djimon Hounsou), who wants to build an army of dragons. Hiccup sets off to try and reason with him, but discovers that there are other dragon riders who want to stop him from doing so.
While the previous film featured a story about coming of age, friendship, trust and generation clash, this sequel is almost purely action and adventure. This is an excellent choice because the audiences of the previous film are four years older and they’ll be happy to have something a little more mature and less preachy. That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned here. In fact, the truths revealed for the characters in the film are some of the hardest realities anyone has to accept. And while the full gravity of these lessons will be lost on younger audiences, they’re still weightier than the previous film, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the better for it. Despite the darker themes in the film, parents won’t have to worry about taking their very small children to see the movie, because the film doesn’t dwell in melodrama and keeps the action fun instead of suspenseful.
The art direction is largely unchanged since the first film, which is a good thing. Returning to Hiccup’s vibrant village is like coming home and audiences will feel immediately at ease. The Vikings are as stout and boisterous as ever. The dragons maintain their distinct looks, especially Toothless. And the joy and wonder of flight as captured completely once again. The biggest change is Hiccup’s look. He’s older and shaggier and wears a sleek leather riding suit, but these are all necessary changes that fans of the series will appreciate. The 3D effects, however, are disappointing. Other than a few short-lived moments, nothing really pops off the screen, so it’s hard to justify the higher ticket price and uncomfortable glasses.
There are perhaps only two minor complaints about How to Train Your Dragon 2. First, while the returning voice cast from Dragon 1 does a great job, Djimon Hounsou as the villain Drago offers the vocal equivalent of chewing the scenery. Perhaps he was directed that way or perhaps his character really is that way, but his performance, though still good, sounded weakest of the cast. Secondly, the film felt slightly compressed for time. After suffering a profound betrayal and a tragic defeat, the heroes take nary a moment to reflect before forgiving all trespasses and rushing off to renew the fight. The urgency of the plot demands some quick decisions, but a little bit more internal conflict could have gone a long way. Still, when compared to how well every other aspect of the film is handled, these complaints won’t detract from the fine time families will have in the theater.