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Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014; Directed by Dean DeBlois)

Picking up several years after the events of How to Train Your Dragon, its more confident sequel matures with its adventurous, inventive, and sensitive protagonist, Viking dragon-rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). After converting not only his hyper-masculine, warlike chieftain father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) but his entire island hometown of Berk to the gospel of human-dragon symbiosis, Hiccup has moved past his awkward outsider phase into young adulthood and social acceptance. Berk reflects his tinkering spirit and dragon-whispering prowess, having built itself into a hub of dragon stables, saddleries, forges, dental operations, and even a Quidditchesque species of dragon racing involving hilariously animated, deeply concerned sheep as key projectiles. Once a fortified, inward-focused, harsh stronghold against outside threats, the fear has lifted from Berk and its people (Berkians? Berkish? Berkings?) and, following the lead of their intrepid young hero, the place has opened to the world.

Mounted on his own dragon, playful, loyal fellow misfit Toothless (a design mixture of a cat, a salamander, and the big-eyed extraterrestrial from director Dean DeBlois’ Disney feature Lilo & Stitch), in a partnership of equals, Hiccup has begun mapping nearby lands, often accompanied by his fellow dragon-rider girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara). On one such excursion, they discover a grand, spiky formation of hardened emerald ice and are nearly captured by a band of dragon-trappers led by Eret (Kit Harington). Eret tells Hiccup and Astrid that he captures dragons for a forbidding warlord named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who dominates the creatures using intimidation and fear and is building a dragon army for purposes undivulged.

Having persuaded his stubborn father and the rest of Berk to accept the advantages of peaceful coexistence with dragons, Hiccup has great confidence in his ability to likewise persuade Drago to take a gentler, more respectful tack with the intelligent beasts. Stoick, however, has a terrible history with Drago and sees things quite differently, encouraging a more direct and aggressive response to the intelligence concerning Drago’s military ambitions. The generation gap in perspectives on sociopolitical relations between father and son that was at the heart of the first Dragon film has largely been bridged, but persists in their respective ideological preferences for hard realpolitik and soft-power diplomacy when faced with an opposing and potentially malignant force.

Into this respectful but philosophically divergent father-son dynamic comes a mother to jostle the Oedipal alignment. Valka (Cate Blanchett hazarding a slight Scots accent) was thought by Stoick to have been killed in a dragon attack, but she has in fact become a sort of guardian shaman for a vast secret dragon colony. Hiccup encounters her in one of the film’s many impressive, exciting airborne sequences (once again a major highlight, for which visual consultant Roger Deakins no doubt again deserves considerable credit) and soon discovers a kindred spirit and dragon-lover. The colony is constructed around a mountainous “alpha” dragon, a ice-spewing horned behemoth that heaves itself about in benevolently-dominating bulk like a beachmaster of elephant seals. But Drago and his forces threatens first this natural dragon utopia and then Hiccup’s constructed human-dragon collaborative society of Berk with a brutal challenge to the equilibirum of each, as well as to Hiccup’s own close family circle.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 tops its predecessor as a jaw-dropping visual spectacle, and polishes the more irritating edges of that earlier effort to a smooth sheen. The gaggle of goofy teenaged Viking sidekicks (including a cocky dude, bickering twins, and an overweight geek) have a diminished role, and the main running joke in their midst (the female twin, voiced by Kristen Wiig, has a major crush on the hunky Eret) is actually consistently funny. The sweet nature of the first film in the series concentrates here into a surprising emotional heft at times, and DeBlois’s story challenges the core relationships in Hiccup’s life with character-revealing conflict and tragedy. It’s exactly the sort of tonally varied, richly felt, entertainingly pitched, and narratively strong cinematic text that Hollywood tends to find so difficult to create and to sustain.

The film is also not without thematic power and subtext, though not all of these subtexts are to its credit. The villainous killer Drago is the franchise’s sole non-Caucasian cast member, a hint of racial stereotyping that undoes some of the decent work at crafting self-possessed female characters like Astrid and Valka. Moreover, although Drago’s focus on strength and will to power when it comes to “training” his dragons is contradicted by Hiccup’s deeper bond of friendship with Toothless, his basic insight on the social relations of dragon society as being based on these same premises is not overturned. Drago’s authoritarianism is reflected in the natural hierarchy of the dragons, grounded as it is in strength and power rather than in something closer to Hiccup’s vision of cooperative, peaceful understanding. Opinions on dragon training approaches differ in How to Train Your Dragon 2, but the instinctual nature of those dragons hardens quite consistently in a single direction.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. December 17, 2014 at 1:03 am

    Good review. Darker than the first and also more emotional, too. However though, it mostly all works.

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