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.
If you go through to Bleeding Cool you’ll find a trailer for How To Train Your Dragon 2 and it. is. beautiful. I’d go so far as to say that it’s better than most animated films out so far this year.
I love the first film, it’s easily Dreamworks’ best and is better than most Pixar films, too. So I was a bit worried when they announced a sequel but this trailer…
The thing is, all the video shows is Toothless and Hiccup flying. But with John Powell giving it his best in the background and with animation that makes me pee myself a little with excitement, that’s all I needed to see.
Last week Dreamworks Animation announced their upcoming slate and to call it busy is something of an understatement. They’ve been increasingly prolific with their output in recent years, but they have kicked it up a notch as they plan to release twelve films in four years, mostly originals with a couple of sequels and spin offs. It’s part of a new distribution deal with Fox, and whilst cynics may dismiss this as a cash grab, the variety of titles and ideas suggests that Dreamworks’ recent creative surge looks set to continue.
The future of Dreamworks Animation looks a little like this (all dates apply to the US): The Croods (March 2013); Turbo (July 2013); Mr Peabody and Sherman (November 2013); Me and My Shadow(March 2014); How To Train Your Dragon 2 (June 2014); Happy Smekday! (November 2014); The Penguins of Madagascar (March 2015); Trolls [working title] (June 2015); B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations (November 2015); Mumbai Musical [working title] (December 2015); Kung Fu Panda 3 (March 2016); How To Train Your Dragon 3 (June 2016)
The Chief Creative Officer for Dreamworks, Bill Damaschke, describes the announcement as “the result of the amazing work and devotion from DreamWorks Animation’s vast roster of directors, producers and artistic talent over many years.” The cast and crews they have assembled for these projects certainly look as promising as Damaschke’s enthusiasm suggests. The Croods is directed by one half of the Dragons directing team Chris Sanders, and stars Nic Cage, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone. Reynolds is also set to appear in Turbo, alongside Paul Giamatti and Richard Jenkins as well as many others (the newly named Snoop Lion will make an appearance). They’ll be voicing a script co-written by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler. Elsewhere, they’ve drafted in Lion King director Rob Minkoff, and voice talent as varied as Stephen Colbert and Alison Janney. These do not look like the efforts of a half-hearted studio merely wanting to rake in the cash. Snoop Lion (and perhaps Ryan Reynolds) aside, these are quality names assembled just for the first two of their long list of upcoming films. Having the names of Giamatti, Jenkins and Siegel behind your film are enough to make critics round the world uncomfortably excited.
It’s not just the talent behind them that ramp up anticipation for these films, but the ideas, too. Admittedly, there are the usual themes coming through of ‘discovering the meaning of friendship’, and more than one ‘odd couple’ scenario, but both Pixar and Dreamworks have been doing these for years and often with great success. Not only that, but there appears to be a freshness to some of the ideas that means they will hopefully rise above more standard blockbuster animations.
Most intriguing is the distant prospect of Mumbai Musical, which the Dreamworks site describes as “the studio’s first ever Bollywood-style animated musical adventure inspired by the great Indian epic tale of the Ramayana but told from the point of view of the monkeys.” It’s a premise so out-there for a mainstream animation studio, I’ll be surprised if it does actually get made.
But there’s more of interest. Me and My Shadow will combine traditional and CG animation (already something to get excited by) to tell the story of a shadow who is more adventurous than the timid boy he is attached to. There’ll undoubtedly be a standard resolution of boy and shadow working together and becoming true friends, but it sounds promising at least. The Croods will be about cavemen, and Turbo will be about a snail who dreams of racing in the Indy 500 (sounds like a premise Pixar would have once come up with). Not only that but their sequels are also part of their two best franchises, How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Both have displayed the studio’s capacity for stunning animation and, in Dragons in particular, telling stories with real heart. Whether The Penguins of Madagascar is entirely necessary, however, remains to be seen.
Right at the beginning of the studio, Dreamworks made a bold choice with The Prince of Egypt; for a fledgling outfit to release a children’s film about a vengeful God who, at one point, kills lots of children, was an incredibly daring move. Their second traditionally animated film covered Spanish colonialism in central America, also not an especially easy topic. This innovation seriously petered off after a while, lost in a mass of talking animals with annoying smirks, and for a long time their films made very little impact. But recently the studio has undergone something of a renaissance, as Dragons, Pandas 1 & 2 and even Madagascar 3 have received critical plaudits, and they have returned to making story and character driven films that look amazing.
With the upcoming Rise of the Guardians, which looks set to be their best yet, it is perhaps time to reassess the position of Dreamworks on the rostrum of great animation studios. They may not be the most consistent, and their tendency towards cheap pop-culture gags so frequently lets them down, but they are definitely able to make top tier animated films, and with this latest batch of films on the horizon, it seems as though things are only going to improve.