Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Back in 2010, How to Train Your Dragon marked a sea change for Dreamworks animation.  Their dismal catalog of overly boxy characters and instantly dated pop cultural references found sudden new life in the form of a sweeping storybook fantasy with enough adventure, heart, and creature design to win over even the most cynical of adults.  The first film managed something sincere in its approach to character, and when we got to know young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) we understood him not as a construct, but as a fleshed out figure. Here was someone struggling to find a place amid not only his people but his family, whose grows into a hero not simply because his outsider status granted him a different line of sight, but because he proves to be compassionate.  The bond between Hiccup and his dragon companion Toothless was perhaps as compelling for audiences as it was for the film's viking village, and as the curtains closed on a newly harmonious Berk it could have been easy money for the studio to turn around and cash in on the zany antics of kids with pet dragons.  That they didn't speaks to something special about the film, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages what so many animated sequels have not dared: it allows the characters to continue growing.

Literally, of course, and figuratively. The sequel jumps five years beyond the pleasant developments of the first film and ages its characters into late adolescence with subtle, believable adjustments to their individual design.  They're a little taller, a little wiser, and a little more sure of themselves than they perhaps were as stumbling teenagers, but that doesn't change the fact that their paths aren't carved in stone.  Though much has changed for the better in Berk, Hiccup and his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) continue to find themselves occasionally at odds. Though now clear in their affection and dependence on one another as a family unit, they simply don't always understand each other. As Stoick raises the topic of Hiccup's natural succession to village chief, Hiccup would much rather spirit away with Toothless to map out uncharted land, perfect his inventions, and skydive.  It's on one of these journeys that Hiccup discovers approaching enemies, a people whose violent relationship with dragons stirs up that same compassionate drive for change of his younger years.  At the same time, he meets a figure named Valka (Cate Blanchett), a woman whose knowledge of dragons surpasses everything he thought was possible. Between the two poles, Hiccup is trapped by the discovery that good people occasionally make decisions that cannot be excused and bad people can't always be reasoned with.  Sometimes changing minds isn't possible.  
The terrain skews darker than most animated spectacles of late, and the content is handled with a graceful maturity befitting the dragons themselves. How to Train Your Dragon excels at finding the grey area is supposedly black and white storytelling, and challenges its characters and its youngest viewers to rethink not only who they assume is capable of being a hero, but what it means to be one. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned and plenty of opportunities for even the supporting characters to make realizations about who they are as people, and what it is they value. We spend a fair amount of time with the ragtag Viking kids again, here, and through Astrid (America Ferrera) on down to Fishlegs there's a sense of possibility in the dynamic nature of their individual characters that suggests stories beyond Hiccup's struggles. Lessons, though, never weigh down the adventure.  Toothless and Hiccup soar above the clouds, repeatedly, and each time they do the film is at its best.  It's a stunning work of animation, a thing of beauty made all the better by how smart, nuanced, and fun it is.  And if you had any doubts? The 3D enhancement is brilliantly used here. Drop the extra couple bucks to experience the rich detail of the character work and the sense of movement on screen.  

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