"Basically, the film is a lot of fun and its heart is in the right place, but its brain was left somewhere on the cutting room floor. The movie’s strengths are very compelling, and I’ll be interested to see if they’re built upon in the sequel." --My review of How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon 2 wastes absolutely no time showing that my prayers were answered. The film opens with the village of Berk, now completely transformed after five years of living with dragons. This means that the vikings' idiotic and contradictory attitudes about dragons have long since vanished from the rearview mirror.
Even better, the movie begins with a dragon race between Astrid (America Ferrara again) and her former compatriots in dragon training. Hiccup and Toothless are missing from the race, but that was actually a very smart decision and we'll get back to them in a minute. The point is that by excluding them, the supporting characters get some time for development above and beyond what they got in the previous film. Granted, they quickly waste their goodwill on an annoying love subplot between Ruffnut, Fishlegs, and Snoutlout (respectively played once again by Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jonah Hill), but at least the effort was there to begin with.
Also, we get to see firsthand that Astrid is still every bit the badass she was in the prequel. She's still a perfectly competent warrior, though I'm sorry to say that she doesn't have an especially huge role in the plot. In particular, she has an annoying tendency to disappear at some key action sequence moments when she would have been particularly helpful (so do the other supporting dragon riders, for that matter) . That said, Astrid is still very effective when the opportunity arises. In particular, she has an exchange with Hiccup early on that demonstrates their ongoing chemistry with aplomb.
Perhaps most importantly, the opening action scene lets us know right up front that the flight scenes will continue to astonish. Not only is the animation off-the-charts superlative, and not only is the film populated with thousands of gorgeous dragons, but the action in this movie is flat fucking astounding. It's like the filmmakers took the climax of the previous film and used that as their baseline for scope, choreography, and emotional impact from the sequel's first act onward. After all, it was only the village of Berk at stake in the last movie. This time, Hiccup and Toothless are fighting for the entire world, taking on an evil that threatens faraway lands and exotic dragon species that haven't even been discovered yet. Which brings us to our protagonists.
Once again, this movie shows us that the filmmakers know exactly what they're doing by showing us a scene of Hiccup and Toothless flying together. In fact, it's pretty much the exact scene we saw in that exquisite teaser a year ago. Not only does it show that Hiccup's inventions have become much more effective and elaborate -- to the point where Hiccup can soar through the air beside his loyal dragon -- but it shows that the beating heart of the previous film is still very much intact. Hiccup and Toothless are still an extraordinary team, and a pair of best friends who are still adorable to watch. Yet the film still finds new ways to test their friendship, though I won't say any more about that.
Getting back to the story, Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel) has been taking his dragon to go exploring the world outside their island village. Though a hobby in cartography is useful in itself for obvious reasons, recent events back home have left Hiccup with a sudden case of wanderlust. After all, Hiccup is the son of a chief (Stoick, played once again by Gerard Butler), and he was a total laughingstock of the tribe until the events of the first movie. But now, five years after teaching his people to tame and raise dragons, Hiccup may finally be ready to take the throne.
Of course, Hiccup feels differently. He doesn't feel ready to become the next chief, so he does what any 20-year-old would do and goes out to try and find himself. And then his long-lost mother turns up.
The trailers have already gone and spoiled this point, so I won't pretend like it's a huge shock to learn that Valka (Cate Blanchett) has spent the past twenty years living among dragons. In fact, she's been isolated from human contact for so long that she seems more feral than sociable at first. It's a neat touch, expertly delivered by the animation and by Blanchett's voice work. What's even more compelling is that Hiccup now has a choice -- he can live as chief of a civilized and advanced tribe, or he can stay with his mother and shepherd a vast collective of dragons. It's a neat evolution of the internal "viking vs. dragon-lover" loyalty struggle that Hiccup had to cope with in the last movie. Too bad his mother goes and solves that dilemma for him, but still.
As a final note on Hiccup, I must say that Jay Baruchel's voice work here is far superior to his performance in the previous film. I don't know if he's grown into the character or the character has grown into him, but it's a definite improvement all the same.
Regarding Hiccup's partner, Toothless is still the engaging character he always was. It amazes me how much life and charm this dragon has. That said, Toothless does have some very contrived moments later in the film, mostly revolving around his heartfelt friendship with Hiccup and his oh-so-special status as a Night Fury. Yes, these moments are sappy. Yes, they're transparently motivated by plot instead of character. But after two movies' worth of buildup, I can let it slide. Barely.
On a similar note, we have the villain of the piece. Drago Bludvist is a character so hopelessly twisted and evil that he won't rest until the entire world is under his control, and probably not even then. He's a figure so much larger than life that he's able to subdue a whole army of men and dragons through sheer force of personality. Someone who could command an alpha dragon the size of a mountain just by swinging his spear in an arc and shouting. In short, Drago is so flat and laughably over-the-top that there's no reason why he should work. And yet he does. Why? Three words: Djimon Fucking Hounsou. If anyone has the presence to bring men to their knees and the voice to make dragons shake with fear, it's that guy.
[Side note: This series went from one overwhelmingly huge antagonist to a smaller antagonist with a massive army backing him. Compare this to the bad guy of Kung Fu Panda (Tai Lung, the renegade kung fu goliath voiced by Ian McShane) and the bad guy of Kung Fu Panda 2 (Shen, the Gary Oldman-voiced leader of a huge naval fleet). Coincidence? I think not.]
Before wrapping up, I suppose I should mention that there's also a dragon trapper. That would be Eret, voiced by Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington. He gets some decent laughs, though he's mostly just a plot device. I could say the same for Gobber (a returning Craig Ferguson), who's a much more effective comic relief now that he doesn't have any exposition left to spew.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 gets a few little things wrong, but it gets so much right that I will gladly give it a big thumbs-up. I only asked for the sequel to build on everything that made the previous film good, and that's exactly what it did a dozen times over. It doesn't feel like a placeholder for some bigger, better sequel (see: Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), this feels like a sequel that moves the franchise forward while standing on its own merit. This is an entry that takes some huge and bold steps toward developing its world, building the stakes in such a way that the action and character development are so much more effective. Hell, the presentation is good enough to gloss over flaws that would have sunk a lesser film. In point of fact, I didn't see this film in 3D and I sincerely wish I had.
The highest praise I can give this movie is that it makes me far more disappointed in Dreamworks Animation. Yes, you read that right. I am disappointed in Dreamworks. It saddens me to know that The Croods, Rise of the Guardians, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman were all so aggressively mediocre when this is the level of quality that Dreamworks is capable of. Hell, my screening of this film was preceded by The Penguins of Madagascar and Home, both of which would assuredly look like total garbage next to How to Train Your Dragon 3 or even Kung Fu Panda 3. I don't care what it takes, but Dreamworks needs to get the rest of their work up to the level of those two franchises ASAP.
Also, Pixar REALLY needs to get back from their four-year coffee break. If Pixar stays complacent while their competition is making films like this, then they're going to be in trouble mighty quick.