Dreamworks Animation was Disney Lite for many years. They had the Shrek and Madagascar series, and stand alones like Monsters vs. Aliens and Megamind – decent movies, all of them, but they didn’t reach the emotional depth of the Toy Story series, or Beauty and the Beast, or Up. That changed in 2010 with How to Train Your Dragon. Based on the series of books by Cressida Crowell, Dragon was wonderfully funny yet it had an emotional resonance with the conflict between Hiccup and his father Stoick, the chief of the Viking village plagued by dragons. The movie also did a service for all the soldiers who have returned home from recent wars with lost limbs when Hiccup lost a foot in the climatic battle while heroically saving the warriors of the village. It gave children a way to understand when that happened to people they knew – perhaps their own mothers and fathers. In How to Train Your Dragon 2, screenwriter/director Dean DeBlois builds on what he accomplished in the first movie.
A couple of years have passed since the first movie, and the dragons have become completely incorporated into the village. Hiccup’s friends Astrid (voice by America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig) are well into their teenaged years now, and with that change have come romantic feelings. Both Snotlout and Fishlegs are pining for Ruffnut, who isn’t impressed with either of them, while Astrid’s feelings for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) have deepened. Hiccup and Toothless spend their days soaring far from the village, mapping the surrounding world. They come upon a group of dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harrington) who are gathering the beasts for the dragon army of Drago (Djimon Hounsou). The hunters had recently been hunted themselves by another dragon rider who has a dragon that can spit ice.
Stoick (Gerard Butler) has had experience with Drago and begins to prepare for war, but Hiccup wants to try to reason with Drago. Hiccup sets off to find him, but instead he discovers someone he never thought he’d ever see – his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has become a dragon rider herself and the protector of a nest of dragons.
Dragon 2 keeps the comedic tone of the first movie intact, especially with the interplay between Hiccup’s friends. The embodiment of Valka is fascinating, as her time among the dragons has led to almost feral movements. The vocal talents of all the actors are excellent, so that during the movie you don’t picture them as they are in real life, but only as the characters. DeBlois and his illustrators match the beauty of the first film with the rich, deep illustrations. The flying and battle sequences in both Dragon movies justify the use of 3D technology, as they capture the joy of flight.
But it goes beyond the first movie to emotionally raw places as it develops the theme of facing maturity and the responsibilities that come with it. It’s a movie about growing up, similar to The Lion King and Bambi, and just like those movies there is a devastating sequence of loss and sadness on the road to maturity.
There is one complaint about Dragon 2, and that is the racefail presentation of Drago as a black, dreadlocked character. It goes back to the worse stereotypes, as well as being jarring amid the Viking world. DeBlois and his team have filled this world with vibrant characters, but Drago feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t match the reality of the others. Djimon Hounsou’s voice does carry the malevolence of the role, but the image is a failure.
But that is the only complaint. The other aspects of the movie are top-notch, and it is a satisfying experience. If Dreamworks can produce other projects that match the quality of the Dragon films, they can challenge Disney/Pixar for supremacy in the field of animated movies.