What is it that makes a great sequel? More specifically, what is it that makes a great sequel to a beloved animated film? Pixar certainly nailed the formula with the Toy Story sequels, creating what many consider to be the best trilogy of children’s films ever to be released. Others, such as The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and The Secret of Nimh 2: Timothy to the Rescue fall short, and don’t reach the exciting heights of the film that came before. I am happy to report that Dreamworks’ latest release, How to Train Your Dragon 2, falls squarely on the Toy Story side of that line, and in many ways surpasses the film that came before it.
This new summer adventure takes place five years after the events of the first film. The main character, Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, has been spending most of this time flying around with his dragon pal Toothless and discovering new lands, while the people of Berk have taken in dragons much like we would pets. Hiccup’s adventures take a turn for the worse, however, when he and fellow dragon rider Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera, stumble upon a group of dragon slavers who are building an army to eliminate the riders. Soon after this, Hiccup finds his long-lost mother, voiced by Cate Blanchett, who has been spending her years apart from her son living in a giant ice cave with hundreds of dragons while causing problems for the slavers. This conflict soon comes to a head as the slavers pursue both Hiccup’s mother and the dragon riders of Berk, providing us with what are possibly the most epic battle scenes to ever be shown in an animated film.
I will admit that before seeing this movie last night, I had forgotten just about everything that happened in the first film. I even needed my friend Austin to remind me of the plot just so that I wouldn’t be completely lost. However, I do remember that after seeing the first film, I concluded that it was an enjoyable animated adventure, and not much more. Don’t get me wrong; the visuals were fantastic, and the story about overcoming past conflicts between humans and dragons was very effective. I just thought that it didn’t offer the same kind of dramatic weight that we feel when we watch movies such as The Secret of Nimh or The Lion King. In this sense, the sequel surpassed the first film by leaps and bounds. By no means in the plot toned down for the children in the audience; the movie has several moments that feel like a punch to the gut. I had just watched the season finale of Game of Thrones before going to the theater, and there were parts in this movie that made me feel much more sad than anything I experienced in the hour and a half prior.
As everyone that has viewed this movie has stated, the visuals are top notch. There wasn’t a single moment in the film in which I was distracted by poor CGI or an obvious editing error. I was completely sucked into this world, and at times it felt like I was flying right next to Hiccup himself. Not only that, but the designs for the characters and dragons were some of the most creative that I have ever seen in an animated feature. Everything from Hiccup’s flying suit to the ice cave looked very original, and gave the film a very fresh feel. Toward the middle of the movie, we are introduced to the alpha dragon, a mammoth of a beast that gave me the same feeling that I had when I saw Pacific Rim. There are scenes involving this behemoth which reminded me of the more grandiose scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, one of my favorite animated features of all time. When an American film can make me draw connections to a mastermind like Miyazaki, I know that I’m watching a quality piece of work.
The voice actors all did a fine job. I love Baruchel as Hiccup simply because his voice isn’t one that you would expect to belong to a hero. The chemistry between him and Ferrera was great, and he and Cate Blanchett made for an effective mother-son pairing. Also, as a Game of Thrones fan, it was nice to hear Kit Harington’s voice for Eret Son of Eret. Some of the other characters’ voices sounded like they came straight out of a Cartoon Network show, but this wasn’t enough to distract me from the overall quality of the movie.
Like all modern children’s films, the movie also had quite a bit of humor, most of which I appreciated. Toothless, in my opinion, is the funniest part of the film, especially when he goes from being battle ready to rolling around on the ground like a dog. There was also a lot of humor involving the other dragon riders from Berk, but most of these lines felt like they were catering to younger audiences, which is something that I don’t appreciate. It’s always rough watching children’s films with older friends and laughing at most of the jokes made, but then having to fake a chuckle at a the slapstick routines that are thrown in for the “under 10” crowd. Still, I absolutely loved this movie, and I won’t be surprised if it ends up being my favorite animated film this year.