Sunday, June 15, 2014

High-Flying Adventure: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

Like all good fantasy sequels, Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes the world its predecessor built and expands upon it. The first film introduced us to the tiny island of Berk where a village of Vikings lived to fight off dragons preying on their flocks of sheep. It followed Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the shrimpy son of the leader (Gerard Butler), as he learned dragons aren’t so bad once you get to know them. By the end, he’d trained a fierce and adorable one he named Toothless as a pet and saved his village from destruction in the process. Now, as the sequel starts, the village lives in peace with the dragons, having realized they’re lovable, loyal, useful animals. There’s no conflict there, so the movie pushes forward, opening five years later on Hiccup and Toothless flying out over the ocean exploring new islands and finding new species. When they land on what is to them uncharted territory, he takes out his hand-drawn map and adds a new page, as fitting a symbol for the start of a new chapter as any.

Writer and director Dean DeBlois, who served as co-writer and co-director with Chris Sanders on the first film, takes the light boy’s adventure and enriches it by foregrounding the boy’s evolution into a man and bringing the cast of background characters more clearly into focus. While struggling with his status as heir, Hiccup, now taller, more toned, and with a touch of stubble on his chin, is drawn into conflict. First, he runs into dragon trappers, led by a hunky, ambiguously bad guy voiced by Game of Throne’s Kit Harington. They’re mercilessly poaching the majestic beasts. But that’s merely prelude to bigger trouble care of a distant warlord (a growling Djimon Hounsou) who threatens hostilities with his army of captive dragons. With a name like Drago Bludvist, pronounced “blood-fist,” he’s born to be bad. Riding out to help quell this new conflict are Hiccup’s father, as well as a likable ragtag band of villagers (America Ferrera, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig) who last time were background color, but this time come into focus as their own distinct characters with subplots and emotional throughlines. 

The first time around, the dragon training was a highlight, a boy-and-his-dog dynamic between a scrawny teen and a jet black, bat-winged, puppy-dog-eyed salamander. Never better than when in flight, the 3D animation dipped and spun with immediacy and vertiginous beauty. It was a thrill. This time, the thrill comes not just from that relationship and the dragon flying, which is as nicely and excitingly rendered as before, but also in the conflicts complicating this fantasy world. The threatened destruction is at a higher magnitude, the characters have more at stake, and the scale towers over them with subwoofer-rattling rumblings. New dragons include a skyscraper-sized alpha beastie that breathes icy breath leaving jagged icicles in its wake. The damage to dragons is also more personal. The introduction of a mysterious figure in the wild, a protector of dragons (Cate Blanchett) who unlocks further secrets of the species, finds time to highlight sliced wings and missing limbs, the result of near-misses with hunters. There’s an ecological weight to this film, a sorrow and responsibility.

The dragon protector has an important connection to Hiccup and much to teach him. The way the plot unfolds finds surprisingly rich emotions to tap into as their relationship is fully explained. The scene where this woman meets Hiccup’s father is astonishing in its tenderness and maturity. It could’ve gone in many big ways – tearful, scary, or regretful – but instead goes for a hushed whisper and a sweet folk song. The film is all about surprising with those kinds of scenes. An early moment between Hiccup and his love interest has a loose conversational quality as they flirtatiously tease each other. A late turn that deepens and darkens the relationship between boy and dragon is unsettling and a real shock, making the resolution all the more stirring. There’s seriousness to the storytelling here that respects both the fun of its colorful fantasy and the emotional lives of its characters.

It’s a movie about responsibility, aging, death, abandonment, and environmental destruction. You know, for kids! It’s bright, vibrant, has a soaring score and rousing action. But there’s a melancholy beneath that’s unexpected in its gravity. I appreciated how respectful of its audience the film is, unwilling to talk down to children and not feeling the need to stretch for adult attention. It’s simply a good story told well. And that’s more than enough to captivate. The animation is gorgeous, digital-painterly tableaus of fantasy landscapes and fluid character movement. The images within stir the imagination. A swarm of dragons flutters about like a flock of birds. Rising slowly and silently out of the clouds, a lone rider wearing a horned mask and carrying a rattling staff, sits atop a massive creature. A boy flies his dragon into the wild, and returns something closer to a man. It’s a terrific, exciting, involving adventure told with great feeling and a good eye.

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