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REVIEW: “How To Train Your Dragon 2”

REVIEW: "How To Train Your Dragon 2"

How to Train Your
Dragon 2
sets a new standard for excellence for the DreamWorks studio.
Writer/director Dean DeBlois has created a powerful, exciting and touching film
that proves animation can challenge the summer’s big-ticket live-action movies,
just as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King did 20 years ago.

The story picks up five years after first film ended. Hiccup
(voice by Jay Baruchel) is no longer a scrawny, maladroit adolescent. He’s been
redesigned to look a little older and heavier, although he’s still no fairy
tale Prince Charming. He’s also more assured, buoyed by the affection of the spirited
Astrid (America Ferrera), the approval of his formidable father Stoick the Vast
(Gerard Butler) and the respect of the entire village of Berk.

But his strongest bond is with Toothless, the dragon who is
simultaneously his steed, pet and best friend. Hiccup’s missing leg and
Toothless’ damaged tail provide visual reminders that neither character is
complete without the other. Although Toothless’ design hasn’t really changed,
he feels older and stronger; when he gets annoyed with Hiccup, he knocks his feet
out from under him with a swipe of his tail. But he’s still the playful dragon
who bestows slobbery kisses “that don’t wash out.”

Hiccup remains an inveterate tinkerer, devising a fiery
sword and a suit that enables him to glide like a flying squirrel when he leaps
into the clouds from Toothless’ back in the dynamic flying sequences. Stoick thinks
his son is ready to assume the duties of hereditary chief of Berk, but Hiccup doesn’t
feel up to the challenge. He prefers to explore the islands surrounding Berk
with Toothless. These reconnaissance missions expand his vision of the world,
but they also bring unexpected, dire consequences.

Far from the shores of Berk, Hiccup meets a masked dragon
rider: Valka (Cate Blanchette), a woman whose bond with dragons is even
stronger than his own. She’s also his mother, who left 20 years ago when she
failed to convince Stoick and the villagers in Berk to stop killing dragons and
befriend them. She’s withdrawn to an ice-shrouded islet where she nurtures young
and injured dragons under the protection of the gargantuan Bewilderbeast, the Alpha

Their tender reunion proves short-lived. In their search for
the missing Hiccup, Astrid and the other teen-agers from Berk encounter Eret
son of Eret (Kit Harington), who is trapping dragons to serve the brutal Drago
Bluvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is assembling an army that will establish his
dominion over all the islands and seas, and reduce dragons to slavery.

Hiccup, who fervently believes in peace among humans and
friendship between humans and dragons, must challenge Drago and his forces. Their
titanic battle is more exciting than the building smash-a-thons in Pacific Rim and Godzilla. Not only are the fight scenes more dynamically shot and
directed, the audience feels a bond with Hiccup, Toothless and their friends
that gives the conflict an immediacy sorely lacking in many live action

Like the “Harry Potter” movies, which built from minor
conflicts to deadly threats, Dragon 2
is darker, more dramatic and more visually impressive than the first film. Like
Harry, Hiccup has a destiny he must fulfill, whether he feels adequate to the task
or not, to defend his friends and family. The dangers Hiccup faces are very
real: DeBlois has created a story closer to an anime adventure or a classic action
film than the milquetoast American animated features that pull their punches
and dispose of villains by having them fall from great heights. These characters
can be hurt and even killed. 

Visually, Dragon 2
is a stunner. The Bewilderbeast moves with a power that is more convincing and
more interesting than Godzilla or many other recent monsters. DreamWorks’ new “Premo” system allowed the artists to create some strikingly understated
animation of the human characters. There are nuances in Hiccup’s and Valka’s
expressions that communicate emotions more subtly than anything the studio has
done previously. Toothless, who nearly stole the first film, remains equally vivid
as the world’s biggest house cat – and as the redoubtable Night Fury, a dragon capable
of destroying any foe with deadly blasts of flame.

After the idiot-savant heroes, goofy sidekicks and spunky,
smart-mouth girls in so many recent American animated features, it’s a treat to
spend time with complex, compelling characters. Hiccup isn’t just a doofus who
makes cool gadgets; he’s a young man with believable insecurities, afraid he’ll
fail to live up to his father’s heroic example. Valka spends her life nurturing
the young and the weak, but that’s a conscious choice, not a stereotype. Her
gift for healing, like Aragorn’s in The
Lord of the Rings
, is a sign of strength, not weakness.

However, the emotional core of Dragon 2 is the bond Hiccup and Toothless share, a bond that
reflects a belief in the power of love to bridge the gap between two beings who
seem doomed to misunderstanding and enmity. It’s a worthy message for a
contentious, fragmented time. 

Although the lackluster work that precedes it belies the praise,
Dragon is clearly the leading
candidate for the Oscar for Animated Feature of 2014. But, like Beauty and the Beast and Up, it deserves recognition beyond the
animation ghetto: How to Train Your
Dragon 2
should be a contender for all the major Awards, including Best

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