Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)
Director: Dean DeBlois
Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois
Based on How to Train Your Dragon, a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell
Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Whig & Kit Harington
Runtime: 102 min // Certificate: PG
Set five years after the events of the first film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is, much like its central characters, far more mature and grown-up than its predecessor. For what is effectively a joyous, carefree children’s film about Vikings and dragons living in apparent harmony, complete with all the flatulence jokes and cutesy metaphors that a film targeted at a young audience demands, it’s actually quite impressive just how dark Dean DeBlois, who takes over as the sole writer-director this time around, is willing to go in order to develop both the characters and the story, even though the promise of greatness that his film constantly flirts with is never fully realised.
You see, as much as I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon 2, and as much as it hit every emotional beat that it needed to, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it is a film that is simply terrified of consequences. There are two major “game changing” moments in the film, both of which involve central protagonist Hiccup (Baruchel; This is the End) and his family, yet they both feel muted by DeBlois’ refusal to go the distance and see them through to their natural conclusions. Both of these major dilemmas are “resolved” – and, in one case, all but forgotten – within a few minutes, in order to give the audience a few more shots of Toothless being cute or the islanders being silly. I get that it’s a children’s film, I really do, and as I say, I’m impressed by the fact that the film even attempts to deal with the situations that it does, but because everything else about it was so strong, I wanted a slightly tighter and more focussed story to really elevate the film into the realms of greatness.
Nonetheless, this minor complaint aside, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a warm, magical little film that does almost everything you want it to and more. In a year of turgid, lazy and downright insulting “family friendly” films, How to Train Your Dragon 2 stands out as a beacon of hope for children and adults alike, offering richly developed and carefully defined characters, an emotional – albeit perhaps a tad lazily so – story and some truly flawless and enthralling animation. When Hiccup and Toothless soar through the air without a care in the World, sweeping and falling and gliding amongst beautiful, intricately detailed landscapes and vast skylines, it’s impossible not to become completely engrossed in their World. Though the battle sequences are sometimes a bit too busy and bloated, there’s something genuinely magical about the film’s quieter moments, such as when the characters are headed towards a limitless, glorious horizon or when the dragons are fooling around like hyperactive kittens in the background, that will make even the most stony-hearted viewer feel like a ten year old child again.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a classic example of what a children’s film should always set out to do, even if it doesn’t always succeed. It boasts some honest and unexpected depth, going to places that you might not expect and doing so in a manner that feels natural, and it never patronises its audience or treats them like… well, like children. I’m 23 years’ old and I found certain parts of the film both tragic and terrifying, so god alone knows what a youngster might think, but that’s exactly why I love it so much. There’s no point pandering to children and treating them like idiots; they’re a lot more discerning and discriminating than Hollywood likes to think they are, and they tend to know when they’re being lied to. Thus, though DeBlois backs down too easily in the face of consequences, he nevertheless does his best to ensure that his film is honest with its audience about life, adulthood and responsibility.
It is in the voice performances that the film’s true heart shines through, however. Jay Baruchel is perfect as Hiccup, playing him as he does with real energy and sincerity. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), despite taking the audience on a speaking tour of every small village and ex mining town in Britain in her (failed) attempt at a Scottish accent, brings some welcome class and gravitas to the film’s more emotional moments, while people like Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) provide a solid mix of childish but enjoyable humour and, when necessary, a layer of dramatic heft. The screenplay doesn’t always live up to its potential, which means the strength of the voice performances feels a little wasted, and at times the film is over-reliant on the inherent sweetness of Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless and on the playfulness of the rest of the dragons, but it’s difficult to complain about things like that when so much time and effort has clearly been invested in the design of each and every dragon.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is far from faultless, and there are times when it outright fails to follow-up on some of its most crucial plot details. Nonetheless, it’s a marvellous and accomplished piece of animation with a backstory and collection of lovable characters that are just about fleshed out enough to make them work. At times undernourished and often a little limp with regards to the consequences of actions, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is still a very fine film that deserves a lot of praise for going in a number of dark, thrilling and upsetting directions whilst still managing to maintain the sense of joyful, carefree fun that its predecessor possessed.
It’s by no means perfect and its flaws do tend to grate more than you might like them to, but if you’re looking for an ambitious, exciting and utterly charming family film that won’t patronise its core audience or bore the pants of their parents, you can’t really go wrong with How to Train Your Dragon 2. Besides, if you don’t fall in love with Hiccup and Toothless then you’re a heartless monster who doesn’t deserve to enjoy a film like this anyway…