Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

Director: Dean DeBlois
Runtime: 102 minutes

After the major critical and commercial success of How to Train Your Dragon (2010), no one was surprised when Dreamworks Animation immediately green-lit (at least) two sequels. Yet instead of rushing the first follow-up, the studio has taken a healthy amount of time to allow for story planning and development. How to Train Your Dragon 2, directed by Dean DeBlois (half of the duo that co-directed the first film), is a sequel that has been crafted, rather than churned out on an assembly line. Some issues with pacing undercut the film's emotional arc, but Dragon 2 is ultimately a worthy sequel, even though it never quite soars as high as the original. 

Set five years after the events of the first film, Dragon 2 reintroduces us to the secluded isle of Berk. Humans and dragons now exist in harmony, and both species are better off for it. That's more than enough for Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) and most others, who have spent their lives living in fear of the winged creatures. But Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has become restless, and longs to explore the vast world at large. Unfortunately, not every expedition ends peacefully. When Hiccup, Astrid (America Ferrera) and their friends run afoul of a dragon trapper named Eret (Kit Harington), they stumble upon a plot that threatens to undo the years of peace between man and dragon.

The incorporation of exploration is among one of the aspects that Dragon 2 excels at. It's an obvious continuation of the first film's plot that creates a natural reason to explore more of Hiccup's world. Returning elements, like the relationship between Hiccup and his cat/lizard-esque dragon Toothless, compliment the new story elements well. With the thrill of the initial discovery gone (like Hiccup and Toothless' stunning first flight together), DeBlois has found new ways to open up a previously established setting. Some of the supporting roster remain one note, but DeBlois continues to show an obvious care for the characters and their world. 

Yet for all of the compelling choices that DeBlois has made, Dragon 2's pacing doesn't quite click like it did last time. The initial world-building is handled quite well, but the film's second half suffers from a few too many major developments that don't have enough breathing room to really register. In trying to make the Dragon universe significantly bigger, DeBlois has jammed in so much that the film struggles to give it all the proper weight in its 102 minute running time. The first film had one major instance of a plot development occurring far too quickly. The sequel, for all of its merits, has allowed this issue to become more noticeable, rather than less. For all of the good things about this sequel, the pacing of the second half makes it clear that Dragon 1 is still the superior film. 

However, despite the frustrations with some of the storytelling, there are quite a few strong elements that act as effective counterweights. The voice cast, whether in major roles or simple comedic relief, remain exception. Baruchel's nasally delivery, through some sort of magic, is endearing, rather than grating. His work as Hiccup is just as strong as last time, creating an enjoyably layered, yet accessible hero. Gerard Butler's work as Stoick is also noteworthy for its winning mix of fierce pride and gruff compassion. New additions to the cast, including Cate Blanchett, acquit themselves quite nicely as well. 

The lone disappointment is Djimon Honsou as the film's chief villain. The actor's work is solid, but Honsou is given a rather narrow role to play. His character's motivation and background are rushed out in a few lines of dialogue, only adding to the issues with story development as the plot builds to its climax. 

On the technical front, the film easily matches, and possibly exceeds, the previous entry. Again, no moment stands out quite the way Hiccup and Toothless' first flight did, but it's hard to find fault with what DeBlois and his animators have conjured up this time around. The creature design is stunning in its scale and variety, as is the work on the locations. Though not striving for photo-realism, the various dragons, clothes, and locales have such texture that you can imagine exactly what it would feel like to touch them. On the sound front, the whole mess of dragon roars (as well as quite a bit else) is first rate, and John Powell's work as composer continues to thrill. 

And, even when the pacing gets in the way, it's never enough to make Dragon 2 fall flat on its face. Though some moments don't hit as hard as they could, Dragon 2 is still genuinely moving. Amid all of the business in the story, DeBlois and his collaborators still know how to find the heart of the narrative. How to Train Your Dragon 2 may not fly higher than the first film, but the altitude it reaches is impressive all the same, even with the increase in turbulence along the way.

Grade: B 

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