The most likely Oscar winner to emerge from this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the latest DreamWorks’ premiere there, the long-awaited 3D “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (June 13).
I met Jeffrey Katzenberg, who first came to Cannes in 1977 as a Paramount executive with Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” with first-time attendee America Ferrara, both fresh off the plane. We had a drink at the Carlton Terrace, where the veteran animation mogul admitted that he was a tad anxious about this one, not because he doesn’t think it’s fabulous, but because DreamWorks Animation, whose films are now released via Twentieth Century Fox, needs a hit. “Turbo” and “Peabody and Sherman” were box office disappointments. “Dragon 3” is set for 2016.
He need not worry. As terrific as the first Oscar-nominated “Dragon” was (grossing $495 million in 2010 worldwide), this one is even better. Surpassing a beloved blockbuster is not easy. How do you give audiences a familiar universe and characters while surprising them with a new story? “It is the great challenge of sequels: how do we exceed the expectations of our audience?” asks Katzenberg. “And as hard as that is to do with an original movie, in many easy it’s even harder to do with a sequel, especially one as beloved as ‘Dragons.'”
The epic Viking tale mapped out by writer-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders was always envisioned, like “Star Wars,” with multiple chapters told over multiple years. This second installment in the planned trilogy is jaw-dropping, opening up the scale of the gorgeous Nordic-inspired Berk world (they scouted locations in Norway) with not only a range of swooping and careening new dragons, from small benign dog-like creatures to deadly behemoths, but a dramatic family story that is positively Shakespearean. There’s more at stake than your everyday family movie.
We start out with our one-footed young prince Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless–who both need various leather-strapped prosthetic aids to help each other maneuver– in a dragon race along with his speedily competitive girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) and Stormfly the Deadly Natter. It seems that the King, Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants his prince to prepare to take on responsibilities in order to prepare to run the kingdom someday. But our bonnie Prince Hal, er, Hiccup, is reluctant to lead.
Meanwhile as he pursues some dragon-trapping pirates in uncharted territory, Hiccup actually discovers his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett, who DeBlois first accosted at the Oscars), a mysteriously powerful dragon whisperer who is hiding and protecting a magnificent horde of dragons from the pirates in an icy Dragon Oasis. Why did she leave her husband and baby Hiccup? Will she come back to Stoick the Vast? Does he still love her? It’s rich.
“It’s not a fairy tale,” says Katzenberg. (It’s actually far closer to a dangerous magical universe like “Game of Thrones” or “Harry Potter.”) “There’s real stakes in this. Hiccup ended up paying a price for assuming the leadership role he took. In this movie Dean made some incredibly bold choices: when the movie starts Hiccup takes off his helmet and suddenly he’s five years older.”
Another aspect of “Dragon 2” is the strong women. Astrid was not a character in the original Cressida Cowell novels. Arnold insisted that they add a strong female character. “It’s really wonderful to find any fantastic female role out there,” says Ferrara. “It’s exciting to know that young girls can grow up with a role model like Astrid who takes charge of dragon trainers when he’s out on his own adventure, without making too much of a deal in this world that women are leading and doing what men are doing.”
“That’s why women and girls love the movie,” adds Katzenberg.
This time writer/director DeBlois was acting solo, without Sanders, his senior mentor/partner from the first film, who had moved on to work on “The Croods.” “He saw it as an opportunity for him to shine, this was his moment,” producer Arnold tells me in a phone interview. “He made it his own, his ideas and writing. He deserves due credit for this solo accomplishment.” DreamWorks head of animation Simon Otto, sound designer Randy Thom, production designer Pierre Olivier Vincent, consultant Roger Deakins, and Oscar-nominated composer John Powell were among the creative team that backed him up.
“When Dean first pitched the new elements he was talking about,” says Arnold, “I thought, ‘this feels Shakespearean. I’m into this.’ Every filmmaker wants to be challenged with good storytelling. Jeffrey said, ‘handle it appropriately for our audience, it has to be with taste and not graphic.’ It was about how to execute and make it work for a family audience. That makes it more challenging.”
The world is a fundamentally human world with mythical amazing creatures added in. DeBlois was finally able, after five years of painstaking R & D, to deploy a set of new Apollo animation tools that “allows him to have a wider bigger canvas than he had before,” says Katzenberg. “He’s the first one to use it. Apollo is why there’s so much emotion in the characters, because the level of complexity the animators have to work with is a factor greater than it’s ever been before. We’ve gone back to the way we used to animate now, back to using a pen. It’s not graphs and dials any more, we’re back to animating a character. It’s a game changer. The tools have limited the ability of animators to get everything that they wanted. This is the first time they have a set of tools and a paintbrush in the hands of artists. It’s now only their imagination that’s their limit, no excuses anymore, if you can dream it you can make it.”