This weekend, a pair of sequels face off: it’s the high concept buffoonery of the very funny “22 Jump Street” versus the more family-friendly antics of “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which is what we’re here to talk about today. The movie is a sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 breakthrough “How to Train Your Dragon,” a movie that introduced us to a world where Vikings (led by Gerard Butler‘s Stoick) face off against fearsome dragons on a regular basis. That is, of course, until young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriends a sleek Night Fury (which he charmingly dubs Toothless), and ends up challenging the preconceived notion of these creatures, forever.
The sequel actually picks up so many years later, with Hiccup now a young man and the Vikings’ colony full of lovable dragons (they’ve shifted away from warmongering and are now all cuddly). He’s taken to charting as much of the world as he can, riding on the back of Toothless to far away lands and encountering all sorts of new creatures. But one day he gets more than he bargained for when he comes in contact with his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett), who oversees a dragon sanctuary, far from the reach of a loathsome dragon hunter (Djimon Hounsou).
But how does the movie stack up to the original? Or should it just be skipped altogether? Read on to find out.
1. It’s Just as Good as the First One
The first film is near the very top of the DreamWorks Animation crop, a movie full of warmth and heart and stunning set pieces. It was co-written and co-directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who made “Lilo & Stitch” at Disney and are just the best guys around. This time around, DeBlois has assumed the writer/director duties, and the movie really feels like the work of one filmmaker. This was clearly not cobbled together by a committee in some smoky Hollywood conference room. This is the real deal. And it’s just as moving and weird and wonderful as the first film. In fact, it makes you realize how badly these characters and worlds were missed.
2. Cate Blanchett Is Totally Amazing, Even in Animated Form
Cate Blanchett is obviously a goddess. She just won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance in “Blue Jasmine” and she can do pretty much everything — including, it turns out, being the voice in an animated feature. (Trivia alert: Blanchett was originally supposed to be the voice of Mrs. Fox in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but was replaced by Meryl Streep at some point during the production.) Turns out, she is absolutely amazing in this too and brings a real sense of understanding and psychological damage to a woman that abandoned her infant child to instead protect dragons. Very “Gorillas in the Mist.” Hopefully, she’ll stick with the franchise.
3. Toothless is the Cutest
Toothless really is a wonderful dragon design, as huggable as Smaug is scary. (Chris Sanders designed Toothless, and the spirit of those original designs is very much present here.) It’s so rare that you get to see an original dragon design, but it’s even rarer to see a dragon design come back for a movie with the same design, and love it even more. But that’s the case here. Toothless is one of the classic movie dragons; there’s no two ways about it.
4. This Is the Family Movie Parents Have Been Waiting For
There seems to be kind of a drought when it comes to family movies this summer, especially with Pixar taking a year off and the “Muppets” movie having already opened this spring. But you should know that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is spectacular, no matter what age you are, and even if your kids force you back to the theater to see it a second or third time, it will be worth it. It’s that good.
5. Roger Deakins’s Presence Can Be Felt
For the first film, the filmmakers utilized Roger Deakins, the 11-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer perhaps best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers. Deakins came back as a visual consultant for the second film, and once again you can see his fingerprints all over this thing. So many of the sequences are lit, exclusively, by candlelight or this cool thing where the dragons open their mouths and just let their fiery breath illuminate a room. It’s totally stunning and starkly different from most animated films, which are brightly lit without actually ever justifying where the light source is coming from. Thank you, Roger Deakins, for helping make animated movies even more beautiful.
6. It’s Darker and Sadder Than You’d Think
DeBlois said that one of the big movies he took inspiration from was “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” the second (and best) film in the original “Star Wars” trilogy that was notable for its gloomy pallor and downbeat ending. While there isn’t some shocking revelation to make “How to Train Your Dragon 2” end on a cliffhanger, it still is very dark and sad in some unexpected, shockingly mature ways. This movie takes its toll and when there are battles, not everyone gets out alive.
7. The 3D Is Jaw-Dropping
When the first movie opened, it was at the beginning of the 3D resurgence and it was pretty stunning what DreamWorks Animation was able to come up with, particularly when it came to the sensation of flight. This has all been upped for the sequel — there are tons of flying sequences, but there are also sequences set on giant Viking ships, massive battle sequences with hundreds of digital warriors, and more dragons than you can shake a ten foot pole at. It’s pretty spectacular, and best viewed in 3D. Totally amazing.
8. One of the Vikings Is Gay
We won’t spoil it, but it’s not as splashy a moment as some are making it out to be. Also, it’s not the first animated character to come out in recent years — Casey Affleck’s teenage jock character in “ParaNorman” was gay, and even mentions his boyfriend.
9. The TV Show Doesn’t Matter
In the four years since the first film, a cottage industry of “Dragons”-related material has sprung up, among them: a series of short films, a half hour cartoon on Cartoon Network, and video games. Thankfully, none of this matters when it comes to the proper story. These tangential elements might amp up your enjoyment of the new film, but you certainly don’t have to engage with that stuff to get a kick out of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
10. Yes, There Will Be a Third One
This is just to assure people that there will be a third film, to wrap up the trilogy, and it won’t be in four years, either. There’s a Summer 2016 date already penciled in for “How to Train Your Dragon 3.” Which means they are probably hard at work on it (DeBlois returns as writer/director) and we think we know what the next one will be about: finding Toothless a mate. Awwwww! It can get cuter!
Article photo courtesy DreamWorks Animation