How to Train Your Dragon 2

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is all grown up and is destined to be the next chief of the Viking island of Berk when his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), retires the throne. The inventive young man, with the help of his best friend Astrid (America Ferrera) and, of course, his dragon Toothless, united man and dragon to live in harmony. Now, five years later, a new danger threatens the land when the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou) and his dragon army attack the island. The men, women and dragons of Berk must join forces and stop Drago’s nefarious plans in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

I loved the first HTTYD but, as is the usual case for me with sequels, I did not have great expectations for HTTYD2. My expectations, though, were dashed when I left the theater after seeing a sequel that is the equal, if not a bit better, than the first. Helmer-scripter Dean DeBlois, who shared the director’s chair with Chris Sanders the first time around, goes it alone behind the camera, with a little help from a terrific cast and crew - and the outstanding screenplay by DeBlois, Sanders and Will Davies.

Hiccup has matured over the years since we last saw him and he has grown up into manhood, becoming a prominent figure on Berk. He is even more inquisitive than when he was as a boy and has advanced the islanders into a wonderful future. He and Toothless take long journeys to chart the previously unmapped lands and seas surrounding Berk. On one such trek they come across a figure from myth – the Dragon Rider. I will not say anything more than that. The story has too many twists and turns, laughs and sadness and should be seen anew, without spoilers that give away important details. HTTYD2 is too good for that.

HTTYD2 is a tour-de-force on all levels. The 3D animation is good (I never thought I would say that) and is integral and important to the film’s look and action with dragons flying around to dizzying effect. The original cast returns for HTTYD2 and, if anything, they are all even more fully developed than the first time around. The techs and the talent are terrific but it is the story that is the glue that holds it together, making it a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. I give it an A-.

As the residents of Berk amuse themselves with a dragon race, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) and Astrid (voice of America Ferrera) explore new territories riding Night Fury Toothless and Stormfly the Deadly Nadder.  They encounter dragon trapper Eret son of Eret (voice of Kit Harington), who works for the notorious Drago (voice of Djimon Hounsou), whose claims to end man's tyranny by dragons is really a cover for the army he's creating of them, all mind-controlled by a Kraken-like Bewilderbeast, in "How to Train Your Dragon 2."

It's five years later and my how things have changed in Berk.  If the excitement of exposure to the beloved first film's world has inevitably given way to familiarity, the filmmakers have found many ways (Hiccup's wingsuit allows him to fly alongside Toothless) to keep the new film from becoming a retread of the original, all brilliantly executed by the animators. Writer/director Dean DeBlois's second of a planned trilogy based on Cressida Cowell's children's books has a daring, shocking climax and its underlying theme could be read as championing the maligned pit bull breed ('a good dragon under the control of a bad person can do bad things') or, more generally, a caution against uneducated judgement.

It's not only Eret and the threat of Drago that's troubling Hiccup as he's also been being dogged by a mysterious, masked dragon rider.  This will turn out to be Valka (voice of Cate Blanchett), a surprising ally who's been shielding dragons from humans in a hidden, fairy tale of a sanctuary (perhaps the film's one off note, as the flora and cascading waterfalls look more like a place from "Rio 2" than Northern Europe, however delightful).  Dad Stoick the Vast (voice of Gerard Butler), who's pushing Hiccup to succeed him, is deeply troubled by news of Drago but struck dumb when he spies Valka.  Hiccup's pals are all still on the scene as well, twin Ruffnut (voice of Kristen Wiig) developing a big crush on Eret, whose exposure to the denizens of Berk make him question if he's on the right side.

The kids have been subtly aged, Hiccup still long and lean, but now outfitted in the leather riding gear being output by Berk's blacksmith, Gobber (voice of Craig Ferguson), whose dragon armory also performs beastie dentistry.  Hiccup's also got his own version of a light saber, a weapon armed with dragon gas and a lighter, and Berk's been retrofitted for dragon life with cave dwellings, feeding stations and emergency fire services.  The film's production design mixes the fantastical with elements of Viking culture (Valka's mask is an intriguing mix of both) and the animators parallel, details like leatherwear and water stunningly realistic.  The character of Toothless continues to enchant with his catlike eyes and puppyish behavior.  The Bewilderbeasts are a strange addition, immense, tusked creatures who blow shards of ice instead of fire, differences explained by their oceanic habitat.  The film was shot in 3D (vs. converted), but it's just an added extra for fans of the format rather than a crucial part of the experience.

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is smart, funny, emotional and even disturbing - small children may have difficulty processing one upsetting event.  Dean DeBlois is willing to take risks and his animated films are all the better for it.

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