Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill
It takes more than a little confidence to compare your film to The Empire Strikes Back, considered by an inordinate amount of people to be the greatest sequel ever made. Yet it is this shining cinematic emblem that writer/director Dean DeBlois is determined to emulate with How To Train Your Dragon 2, the first of two sequels to his 2010 smash-hit.
Five years have passed since Hiccup and his dragon Toothless succeeded in uniting Vikings and Dragons on the Island of Berk and the two now spend their days exploring the skies in search of uncharted lands. It is on one such adventure that the duo comes in to contact with a group of dragon trappers who work for Drago Bludvist, a tyrannical conqueror intent on building the world’s largest dragon army. Determined to keep the peace, Hiccup sets off with Toothless to try and reason with Drago, but soon finds himself preoccupied when a mysterious dragon rider reveals herself to be someone he believed was dead.
DeBlois’ comparison with Empire may seem overblown at first, but as it soon becomes clear it’s actually quite pertinent. By mirroring many of the elements that made that film so successful, DeBlois offers a sequel built on wonder, intelligence and maturity, which crucially allows for both the characters and the world they live in to develop.
Echoing the bravery of his lead protagonist, DeBlois displays an extraordinary sense of courage in his approach to Dragon 2. Though the film isn’t notably longer in length, this time there isn’t a feeling that the writer/director is rushing to simultaneously establish narrative and characters. Indeed, having been freed from the scene-setting constraints that heavily marred the first film, DeBlois balances his sequel with an effectively relaxed attitude that confidently allows his much-loved central duo to propel the story forward.
Using the intervening time to naturally develop their friendship, there’s a sweet, warming glow to Hiccup and Toothless’ bond that’s charmingly evocative of that shared between man and their canine companions. Much of this is down to the film’s colourful characterisation of dragons, many illustrated with dog-like personalities that make them disarmingly adorable. However, what makes the film feel organic is that the dragons are never treated like a gimmick to keep the youngsters happy, they’re actually integral to making this a living and breathing world.
Utilising Hiccup and Toothless’ adventures as a tool to further explore this far-reaching realm of dragons and humans, DeBlois reveals a rich and vibrant cosmos that captures your heart. Full credit must be steeped upon the art and visual effect teams for constructing such a hypnotically wondrous setting. However, equal praise must be given to DeBlois, who manages to make both his lead characters and those around them standout from the sumptuous backdrops thanks to his intelligently natural development that never feels pressurised.
More impressive than the writer/director’s handle on his characters is the one he has on his story. There has always been a stylish compulsion within filmmakers to make a sequel darker, generally at the expense of substance. Yet here DeBlois proves the credibility of his bold cinematic comparison, by allowing the film to become inherently darker as it progresses. Brave choices in the narrative, particularly in the second and third act, embody an unexpected maturity generally found only in top-tier Pixar films, which allows for added layers of depth to be found in both the characters and the story.
If anything hinders Dragon 2 it’s the core narrative involving Drago, which would have benefitted from actually being fleshed out further over two films instead of propelled towards a climax that fails to be as effective as DeBlois would probably have hoped. Yet, that’s barely a gripe for a film that will manage to enrapture audiences both young and old. Whether the film’s final instalment will be able to equal such quality remains to be seen, but with DeBlois once again at the helm, there’s unlikely to be a disturbance in the force.