How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to what has arguably been – up to now – DreamWorks’ finest animated hour is not a mere continuation. It is a resounding expansion. The considerable enlargement of the cinematographic universe was a rather natural step when one considers the very nature of the movie that opened up what is bound to be, alongside Toy Story, the finest example of a full-fledged and completely satisfactory cartoon trilogy.
The franchise’s opening chapter displayed Berk, the wondrous Viking village precariously set between rocky hills and the foam of an angry ocean, as being inhabited by uninformed and extremely likable barbarians. Dragons were effectively portrayed as a murderous threat, until – after a long struggle – the barrier separating perception from reality was brought down. The movie could not go far from the general vicinity of the village because it was, wisely, concerned with building a great tale about how ignorance is a powerful foe that can lead to a world of trouble if not combated.
With that out of the way, and humans living in perfect harmony with their former winged-enemies inside the confines of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon 2 sets its sights on much bigger prey. Its foundation is, therefore, solidly built on what has been established by its predecessor.
Coming over four years after the original movie, this follow-up represents a giant technical leap, and also marks the first time in which DreamWorks’ visuals match-up with the usual Pixar greatness. Totally conscious of its graphic exuberance, the movie opens up with a mesmerizing and fun dragon race in Berk, and then cuts to a glorious sequence of shots of Hiccup and Toothless blasting through the air.
The abundance of quality is not present just in the big flashy scenes, it is also oozing in every dialogue – with incredibly believable and detailed facial movements, and in every relatively fast-paced take – as the characters move with uncanny naturalism.
The movie is literally filled with breathtaking action scenes and flying segments, but unlike most modern flicks, on which special effects are futile fireworks, here they are used to move the plot chains forward. Nowhere is it clearer than on the opening segment, where – with more stylish motions than dialogues – the film is able to, in about ten minutes, say a lot about the current state of life in Berk and the situation of its main characters.
While most Vikings are happy to merely go about their daily lives, now with the aid and company of the world’s greatest pets, Hiccup – ever the nonconformist and now a young adult in his early 20s – flies around the land mapping new islands and locations. It all goes extremely well, until, after being attacked by stranded dragon trappers, he catches word that a known mad man – Drago Bludvist – is amassing a powerful dragon army.
His goal is a simple one: with the fire-breathing military force, he plans to set fear loose in the world in the hope that people, who massively still believe in the non-existent aggressive demeanor of the dragons, will run towards his protection once they believe he is the sole savior who can control the mighty beasts.
Although the movie does get its main point across with brilliancy, and if not for “Frozen” it could have been easily called the greatest animation of the last half-decade, it stumbles a bit with its expansive ambitions. The world it successfully paints is a very broad one and, as a consequence, it is packed with people, motives, and plots that collide with stellar results.
However, this abundance of threads meant that – with the goal to keep the film’s running time manageable – the development of a couple of new major characters, especially Drago himself, had to be edited to a certain degree. In spite of the fact his motivation and background eventually surface, it is hard not to feel like he – and a few of the movie’s other main players – would have been better served had some of their deeds been portrayed on-screen.
Yet, ultimately, the worst effect those slip-ups have is that the ripples of some scenes and actions are only fully felt and understood a little bit later than they should have. It is a sin, but one that is somewhat mild and will not affect the emotional impact the movie’s core is bound to deliver.
With their world expanding, the people of Berk – especially Hiccup and his loved ones – come to discover that while their use of the dragons is powered by a strong partnership built on trust and friendship, there are others who build such relationship with fear. In order to get the curious and pacific creatures to obey him, Drago tortures and harasses them into submission; turning them into war machines instead of trusty helping hands.
The conflict around which the movie gravitates is, then, the battle between dutiful – and poorly constructed – obedience versus unbreakable loyalty. Although the means that are used are the same – dragons – the goal is vastly different. Some plan to spread a word of peace and union to other tribes that may have a wrong understanding of what dragons are actually like, whereas others intend to foster the force of a threat that is actually inherently harmless.
The message here is that, like so many tools and animals that exist in our world, dragons are born as a white page that will be slowly filled up by the environment that surrounds them, and even if, deep down, they are able to retain their original good-will, it can be easily buried by years of insensitivity. Hiccup explores the lands away from Berk only to discover what we already know: that the same “how” can pave the way to many different “whats”.