How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the most solid, light, and enjoyable fantasy film of the summer.
These days, we seem to want fantasy stories, but we want them to be told in a very serious way. When it comes to our fantasy entertainment, current trends seem to dictate a very rule-based approach. The actual mechanics of a fantasy situation typically trump the light enjoyment of that situation. We have to know origin stories, physics, and political back-dealings that led to the superheroes, vampires, and dragons, always forgetting that the basic and intrinsic fantasy joy of those situations stems not from their explanations, but from their result. In short: that something does work is typically more important than how it works.
Dean DeBlois’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, a sequel to the 2010 animated film, is a rare fantasy film that is more focused on its story than on mythmaking. And what a relief. I will elucidate: Here is a film that has strong characters, that builds on the previous film, and that involves some new element of the protagonist’s backstory without ever once disappearing up its own backside; too often, sequels intimately involve the main characters’ own personal myths to an unseemly degree (i.e. It turns out it was your father all along!), leading to a film that is less about someone living in a fascinating fantasy world, and more about a fantasy world that is contingent entirely on the doings of the protagonist. It’s time to put that to rest, and let your characters grow and react more organically. So rather than deep explanation as to how the world of dragons operates, the complex physiology of dragon monsters, or shifting psychic allegiances, we can have a movie where we can just sort of take for granted that dragons live alongside Vikings, and that they are trainable. Now the story can begin.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is no longer the gangly 15-year-old outcast, but a studly and heroic 20-year-old leader. Since the events of the last film, his home village has adopted dragons as a usual way of life, and everyone has a pet. He and his dragon Toothless explore the outer regions of his kingdom, making maps and spending time alone. On his trips, he runs into two unusual new things. One, the emissaries of an evil warmonger named Draco Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), and the other, a bizarre wildwoman and mass dragon trainer who turns out to be Hiccup’s long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). Hiccup, being a natural pacifist, wishes to broker peace with Draco Bloodfist (and good luck brokering peace with someone named “Draco Bloodfist”), also while learning about his mother, whom he has never known. All the while, funny pet-like dragons roll about with their owners, blow smoke-balls, and typically behave like hyperactive and particularly intelligent golden retrievers, all to very humorous effect.
The visuals in How to Train Your Dragon 2 are striking and clear. The character design was cool without being cloying, the period detail was plainly edible without being too muddy or distasteful or overly complicated – a common misstep in medieval fantasy design. There is a wonderful scene wherein our hero is in a darkened room lit nothing by the burning mouths of the dragons around him. It’s an awesome visual. I saw the film in 2-D and, as with most cases, that’s how I recommend you see it as well.
I will say this: When it comes to storytelling, I value clarity. I can handle ambiguity and subtlety, of course, but too many filmmakers, especially in fantasy, especially in kid movies, are too eager to get to a climax. This is a film that grows more from character and plot necessity than by rote screenplay 101 elements and overblown studio dictates.
But enough of what the film is not. What it is is a fun, funny, moving, solidly constructed, and really rather wonderful little flick. It is a fine example of just solid filmmaking, a rarity in a genre that is typically frantic, breathless, and needlessly huge. It is full of good humor and imagination. More than anything, I left the theater in a better mood than when I went in. And isn’t that what summer animated films are supposed to do?