The first How To Train Your Dragon film ended on a surprising note for a big studio animation in that the main character lost one of his legs. Contrary to just about every other animation out there, the action sequences in the spectacular finale had actual consequences. It’s a bold move, and was one of the many elements that made it stand head and shoulders above everything else Dreamworks animation – and most other CG studios – has released. There is a scene in the middle of that film’s stunning sequel that takes such consequences to a new level that is, again, completely surprising for studio animations of the CG era. This is just one aspect of the first film that has been carried over into the second film, not in a lazy, same-but-bigger approach, but in a way that it keeps everything that made the first so good, all while telling a different story. In that sense, it’s up there with Toy Story 2 & 3 as one of the best animated sequels ever.
Moving five years on from the events of the first film – itself a move that feels remarkably fresh – the protagonists of the first have grown up and Berk is now well established as a dragon riding village. Astrid and Hiccup are still a couple and nothing threatens that throughout the film, they just work consistently well together. Hiccup and his father, Stoick, are no longer just an awkward father and son but friends who have disagreements; their relationship has moved on so that the conflicts are different – now it’s about how to lead and who should lead. In short, there is real progress from the first film. Where the Shrek films repeated the same story four times in a row, what makes the world of Dragons so absorbing is that even though it is clearly fantastical, it’s a world where people grow up, where relationships develop and people are put in actual, real danger. In that sense, it’s more mature than most live action blockbusters where characters are stuck in a stasis of immortal, bland superheroics.
Thrown into the mix of these developing relationships to shake things up is a mysterious dragon rider wearing a spiked mask and formidable armour, whose identity was sadly given away in the trailer. If you don’t want to read about this early plot development and missed the trailers, skip to the next paragraph. She is Valka, the original dragon rider and, of course, Hiccup’s mother. The big family reunion is marked not by histrionics but by tender moments, for instance a wonderfully unprofessional duet is how a husband and wife rediscover their love for each other. This family unit is one of two relationships that form the core to a film that is regularly surprising in its emotional impact. Considering, again, where other Dreamworks films may have taken this subplot, the maturity of Dragons 2 is evident. There is no forced conflict, no big fall out to be followed by an equally trite resolution, but curiosity and happiness instead. It’s romantic in a restrained way, both heartfelt and believable.
The other key relationship is, of course, Hiccup and Toothless. Easily the highlight of the first film, here their bond is expanded and challenged in fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking ways. Toothless, now rendered with astonishing detail, is one of the greatest animated characters ever, every expression, every movement conveying a wealth of character without ever fully anthropomorphising him – he remains a dragon throughout. He’s a fully rounded creature, with a personality and tics that utterly sells him as real and tangible. It’s therefore immensely distressing when his relationship with Hiccup is tested to its extremes in the third act. This is a double act you are rooting for from the first scene they are in together, thanks in part to the work of the first film but also to the work done by the animators and Jay Baruchel as Hiccup to convince us of their bond as best friends.
It’s not just the animation on Toothless that is impressive, but the whole world is created with the kind of detail and flair that causes jaws to involuntarily drop and animation geeks to drool uncontrollably. Technologically there have been huge leaps, with Dreamworks pioneering new lighting and movement software that shows in the texture of a dragon’s skin or in the thickness of a fur coat. Yet technologically impressive animation does not make it necessarily visually interesting. Dean De Blois’ direction, however, assures this film’s place as one of the best looking CG animations of all time. As Hiccup narrates, ‘with Vikings on the backs of dragons, the world just got a whole lot bigger,’ and both the world and dragons are, indeed, a whole lot bigger; exploring this world is where Dragons 2 really takes off, as Hiccup discovers more about dragons, sees more types and tries to map the world. Some of the images that De Blois and his team creates are utterly breathtaking, from a montage of feeding and soaring on thermals, to a widescreen shot of solo flying that looks astonishing in IMAX.
It’s as though the creators of How to Train Your Dragon 2 set out to show us things we’ve never seen in the cinema before, such is the ambition and scale of some of the shots. Take, for instance, the introduction of Valka. Hiccup is having a small tantrum while flying high on the back of Toothless. Unknown to him in the background, a masked figure pierces the tops of the clouds and drifts by, standing proud and upright and seemingly floating, unassisted, through the pearlescent sky. It’s a powerful, strange image that’s almost scary it’s so compelling. When Valka introduces herself later on in a cave full of dragons, it happens to the burning light of a dozen dragons using their mouths as torches and once again the film makes you gasp at the beauty and invention of the image. Accompanied by John Powell’s score that sets hearts racing and lifts spirits, Dragons 2 is full of unforgettable moments like this that inspire awe and wonder, which is exactly what animation, and cinema in general, should be doing.