Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

I officially want my own dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer, possibly of the year, so I'm not going to miss an opportunity to review this one.  The first Dragon is a favorite among my animated movies, and I've been waiting with anticipation and nervousness for the inevitable sequel. Personally I'm not sure how you can really dislike these movies unless you just reject animation in general. How to Train Your Dragon made Vikings an affable people! If you know a little history, JUST a little, you know that Vikings are a really unlikely choice for a movie that will attract children. Vikings on dragons might sound a little too ridiculous for the unimaginative, but if the Vikings had mastered the art of dragon-riding, our world would be a very different place today.

But anyway I digress. So How to Train Your Dragon 2 starts up a few years after the first installment has left off. You can surmise this from the dragon-friendly modifications to the village of Berk, and the grey hairs that Stoick has sprouted. As usual Hiccup is off with Toothless being very un-Vikingly, peacefully exploring and mapping the surrounding world, without intent of conquest. Stoick has decided that Hiccup will be the next chief of Berk, but Hiccup just wants to keep being an explorer and inventor leading a peaceful but adventurous life. But as so often happens in life, things happen, and life doesn't go according to plan.

First off, Toothless is one of the most lovable characters to grace the animated screen in recent years. His big green-yellow eyes, facial expressions, and body language are more communicative than all the spoken words in the entire script.  He doesn't need to talk-- it's all clear with a little dragonly grumbling. Toothless is like a big, playful, sonic burst-spitting puppy, with a few cat-like tendencies.  The way he bounces, wags, rolls over, plays, and even smiles is positively endearing. Toothless has all the intelligence, emotions, nobility, courage, and honor of a real warrior, but is still just....sorry, adorable. He's a pet worthy of a Viking, but also fits the youthful adventurous spirit of his rider Hiccup.

By this point in time, Hiccup himself seems less worthy of his name than he once was. He's less bumbling and clumsy, though not a shred less adventurous. Hiccup has no interest in becoming the next chief, but it should be noted that it's really less to do with shirking responsibility, and a lot more to do with his desire to continue being an explorer... and a lot to do with some insecurity about being able to fill his father's boots. But Hiccup has grown up a lot since the first installment, being more confident in himself that ever before, even to a fault. Example, despite repeated warnings and evidence to the contrary, Hiccup is convinced that he can talk the evil Drago out of his nefarious plans.

As much as I loved Toothless and Hiccup, what really stuck with me was Stoick and Valka. The tender reunion and rekindled love between Stoick and his long-lost wife was sweeter and more emotional than Hiccup meeting his mother for the first time. In genres such as this, young love is usually the centerpiece, but here the older, constant love takes the stage and steals the show in two exquisite moments with a look and a dance. Initially I wasn't sure what to think of Valka, who had been alive all this time, willingly abandoning her husband and child, but it's clear that she deeply regrets this decision and longs to start over with her family. Furthermore, seeing the mighty Stoick suddenly melted to butter at the sight of Valka, taking her back without any question at all, and loving and protecting her as if she never left, was simply beautiful.

Yet would this movie be worthy of its predecessor without the fantastic humor that accompanied the first movie? Of course not, and this one delivers plenty of chuckle-worthy moments, mostly at the hands of the (seemingly) last single girl in Berk, Ruffnut. Personally I would have liked more of Craig Ferguson's Gobber, but the humor surrounding Ruffnut delivers plenty of laughs. Furthermore the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless has always been one that is light-hearted and playful, and that is as much the case here as it was in the first film.

The first movie's villain was tradition and prejudice, but here the antagonist is a real person with disturbing powers that yield serious consequences. To say that Drago is a powermonger would be a serious understatement. Drago wants worship and sovereignty. Not in the religious sense necessarily (though he does at one point command a posture of bowing down), but in the sense that he wants all people and dragons to fear him, and he is ruled by this lust. The power he already possesses leaves absolutely no barriers for him to do as he chooses, and he does just this without a second thought, making him a rather disturbing figure.

In many ways, How to Train Your Dragon 2 follows the formula for a sequel by being bigger, darker, and more explosive, but in other ways it dodges some of the woes that Part Two's are prone to. While the movie certainly does increase its levels of action and suspense, it doesn't overload itself with such sequences, but is sure to make these moments impressive. But leaving the theater, it was not the battle moments that left the greatest visual impression. The visually impacting moments were the ones that captured the magic and wonder of adventure: when Hiccup is flying with his mother and she walks effortlessly from dragon to dragon in mid-air; when Hiccup shows off his newest invention that allows him to fly independently of Toothless, while Toothless keeps him aloft by firing heat-bursts in front of him; the moments of sheer splendor where dragons dance like butterflies in a hidden refuge, break the surface of the water like dolphins, or suddenly appear from the clouds in peaceful but majestic glory. This is where How to Train Your Dragon 2 embraces its world, revels in its beauty, and makes you so jealous that you're not on that dragon, soaring above the clouds.

All in all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was just as enjoyable as the first movie, bringing a perfect blend of comedy, drama, and action to the screen, with plenty of awe-inspiring moments. The only things I found remotely disappointing were that one of the biggest showdowns is over too quickly, and one character will definitely not be returning for the inevitable Part Three. For this review, I have ever so considerately put one spoiler-ish analysis in the postscript under the picture, so you won't read it accidentally. But in conclusion, I would say whole-heartedly that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a sequel worthy of its excellent predecessor.

For all the dragons and evil villains and Godzilla vs. Godzilla showdowns, there was one area that How to Train Your Dragon 2 significantly surprised me by the time the credits rolled. At the start of the movie we are shown that Stoick is ready to pass the chieftainship to Hiccup, but Hiccup doesn't really want it. Astrid on the other hand can think of no greater honor. Considering the advancement of time, I somewhat expected that Hiccup and Astrid would tie the knot and Astrid would assume the chieftainship while Hiccup resumed being an explorer and peacemaker to outlying regions. A little later I wondered if the movie was setting up newcomer Eret to take this position. What was surprising to me was that eventually, it is in fact Hiccup that takes the honor. After a great battle and a huge loss, Hiccup acknowledges that being a chief isn't about being born with the right look or having intimidating strength-- it's about character. "I was so afraid of becoming my dad. Mostly because I thought I never could. How do you become someone that great, that brave, that selfless? ... I guess you can only try... A chief protects his own." In the end Hiccup steps up to the position, proving that leadership can come in many forms, and a good leader doesn't always fit the mold of a strong and mighty chief.

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