Friday, June 20, 2014

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 Is Overstuffed, But Still Soars


- The first How to Train Your Dragon was, at the time of its release, a new milestone for Dreamworks animation. It was not only the best Dreamworks film to that point, but it was one of the absolute best movies of 2010 - a gorgeously-rendered animated adventure that had both epic action and a strong emotional core. The first film works great as a standalone feature, but with its success, franchising was, in all likelihood, inevitable. And hey, who didn't want more Dragon action? I know that I was pretty psyched to revisit the world of the first film, and the promise of the series expanding towards an even bigger and crazier mythology seemed filled with potential.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 mostly succeeds in its mission to expand the world of the original and serve as the middle chapter of a trilogy in which the stakes are set to be continually raised. Certainly, the filmmakers have upped the ante from a visual perspective. Few if any movies can match the sheer visceral thrill that seeing the original in 3D on the big screen provided. But Part 2 tops it. See this one in 3D and on the biggest screen possible. It's a total roller-coaster ride, with some of the most dazzling imagery ever seen on film, and a you-are-there sense of immersion that is unmatched. As in the first film, the dragon-riding scenes contain aerial acrobatics that, in 3D and on a big screen, provide a true thrill ride experience. But in addition, the sequel contains scenes in which the screen is just swimming with sensory-overload-inducing visuals. Scores of dragons flying in formation, gigantic screen-filling creatures whose size and scope will shock you, and eye-catchingly exotic locales that beg to be explored.

The movie justifiably spends a lot of time dazzling us visually. But because of all the time and energy spent on those big moments and action set-pieces, the plot feels rushed. What messes with the narrative momentum is that the relative simplicity of the first movie is thrown out in favor of a big, messy, sprawling story that looks to retrofit a Star Wars-style epic onto the world of How to Train Your Dragon. A lot of it works as exciting spectacle. However, some of the big, emotional character beats feel rushed, and numerous characters feel shortchanged, in the interest of packing in as much epicness as possible into the film.

The plot picks up five years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup - still sporting Jay Baruchel's nasally voice - is now older and kewler (he has leather armor and a flame sword!), and spends his days riding around on his faithful dragon Toothless, mapping out new lands in the fictional fantasy world where he resides. At home, on the island of Berk, dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony (after the events of the first film), and all seems well. Hiccup's greatest worry is whether he wants to accept the responsibility of taking over leadership of Berk from his father, Stoick (again voiced by Gerard Butler). However, on his journeys, Hiccup comes across a seemingly nefarious band of bandits led by the charismatic Eret (Kit Harrington, aka Game of Thrones' Jon Snow), who warn of a great evil coming - an ancient evil named Drago who has the power to control dragons and bend them to his will. It seems that Drago is amassing a Dragon army and has Berk firmly in his sights. Hiccup's efforts to halt Drago's attack take a detour though when he meets a mysterious Dragon Rider named Valka, who lives on a hidden dragon sanctuary. As it turns out, Valka - voiced with new-age earthiness by Cate Blanchett - is actually Hiccup's long-lost mother, which leads to an emotional reunion with not only Hiccup, but with Stoick as well.

And so, as you can see ... the plot thickens. Big time. There is A LOT going on here, and not all of it adds up, exactly, to a satisfying whole. Probably the most well-realized aspect of the plot is the story of Valka and her reunion with Hiccup and Stoick. As with the original, the underlying theme of family is really what gives the movie its emotional core. And just as with the original, this storyline is more sophisticated and moving than what we'd typically see in a family-friendly animated film. Even amidst all the spectacular dragons and action, the film's single best moment might be a nostalgic dance shared by Stoick and Valka. Don't be surprised if you get just a bit misty-eyed during this wonderfully-realized scene. In fact, the Valka-Stoick stuff is so good that you wish there was a lot more of it. But the movie sort of gives them their moment and then rushes forward, eager to get to the giant battles with Drago and his kaiju-sized Alpha Dragons. Don't get me wrong, the Alphas are friggin' awesome. But the movie loses some of its emotional undercurrent as it goes, getting too caught up in simply presenting us with the visceral rush of dragon-on-dragon combat.

In similar fashion, the movie's many subplots come and go so fast that they barely make an impact. Hiccup's relationship with his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) is there, but there's not much too it other than a few scenes that basically remind us "yep, they're still a couple." There's also some very funny moments centered around Hiccup's friends - Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig). But the best and funniest little subplot here - Ruffnut's hopeless infatuation with Kit Harrington's roguish Eret - never gets much in the way of resolution or satisfying closure. Eret himself is a bit problematic. He goes from adversary to ally at the drop of a hat, and he doesn't quite feel fully-formed as a character. His presence in the movie is a constant reminder of just how jam-packed the film is with plot and characters. Every time I saw him, I had to stop and ask myself "who's this guy again, and which side is he on?" Meanwhile, there's no question what side Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) is on. But as a Big Bad, he's sort of meh. The most interesting thing about him is his ability to mind-control dragons, which leads to some exciting and nail-biting moments where Hiccup is pitted against a Drago-controlled Toothless. But as a character, he really is undercooked - and visually, he feels sort of generic as well. Suffice it to say, if this is meant to be Dragon's attempt at Star Wars-style epicness, Drago is no Darth Vader.

All that said, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2's best moments are so good that it's easy to put all of those issues to the side. When the movie soars, it really soars - literally and figuratively. It's action scenes and visuals are universally stunning, and its best character moments - the reunion with Valka, Toothless trapped under Drago's nefarious influence - are fantastic. This is a franchise that is willing to go to some surprisingly dark places, and some of the events of this film are shocking - the kind of stuff that will leave kids (and probably many adults) gasping. And again, give all the credit in the world to writer/director Dean DeBlois, who again has set a new bar for visuals in animated films. DeBlois is also attempting something tricky here - trying to turn How To Train Your Dragon into a true epic fantasy franchise. He stumbles just a bit with this sequel, but there's enough that he gets right here that, regardless, I absolutely can't wait for the next chapter.

My Grade: B+

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