By Greg Popil
Since “Toy Story” debuted in 1995, Pixar studios has claimed the title of not only the greatest animation studio in the world, but possibly the greatest studio of the modern era. For the next decade and a half, Pixar’s animation factory ceaselessly churned out classic after classic, mixing amazing, groundbreaking visuals (the entire CGI revolution in feature animation began with them) with equally impressive, emotionally charged screenplays, allowing great actors the opportunity to chew on some of the greatest dialogue of their careers (for my money, Peter O’Toole’s “Ratatouille” monologue and the opening montage of “Up” are as good as any scenes filmed in the 20th century). It wasn’t until 2010, the year that Pixar put out their final undisputed masterpiece in “Toy Story 3,” that another studio was finally able to match them in quality, with the amazing “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“Dragon,” the story of a young boy named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his winged pet forging a bond and fighting prejudice in the middle of a Viking/dragon war, managed to perfectly balance the sad comedy of being an awkward boy out of place in his own time and in the home of his alpha-male father (Gerard Butler) with flat-out awesome action sequences (dragons fighting Vikings, dragons fighting dragons, Vikings riding dragons fighting a dragon the size of the Chrysler building). The movie ended with both Hiccup and his dragon Toothless permanently wounded by their adventures, but with the hope of a new, peaceful civilization forged because of them.
It is to the credit of returning director and screenwriter Dean DeBlois that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” hardly feels like a retread. The typical animation sequel formula of having the hero face the same self-doubt that he overcame in the previous movie yet again is nowhere to be found. Set five years after the original, “Dragon 2” finds Hiccup and Toothless boldly charting uncharted territory in both geography and human flight, until they encounter a series of dragon trappers led by Eret (“Game of Thrones’” Kit Harrington), who work for Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a warlord with a plan to form his own dragon army.
It falls to Hiccup and Stoick to protect their people, and though they disagree on the hows (Hiccup wants to talk terms with Drago, Stoick wants to fight), they treat each other with a refreshing respect and love. Baruchel and Butler remain a wonderfully mismatched team, which leads them both to a mysterious dragon wrangler (Cate Blanchett) with whom they share a bond.
Whereas the first movie was very much a teenage coming-of-age story, “Dragon 2” finds the characters going in a more mature direction. For a movie that devotes the bulk of its 102-minute running time to flying theatrics, it’s to DeBlois’ credit that he stops the story cold to tell a touching mini-tale of sorrow and reconciliation, a love story that stretches across decades not unlike the aforementioned “Up” sequence. Acting more like an adult can take a lot of forms, however, and the movie also shows the young Vikings, now in their early 20s, in what can only be described as the throes of lust. Hiccup remains betrothed to his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), but a hilarious subplot finds his buddies Snotlout and Fishlegs (Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) voraciously pursuing the affections of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), who could not care less about any of this silliness…until she lays eyes on Eret. Pairing up secondary characters in sequels is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but the surprisingly charged sexuality of these scenes makes them unique. (Note: I saw this movie with my 7 year-old daughter, and the not-so-subtext of these references went completely over her head. Parents, take that for what you will)
Of course, the central attraction for any HtTYD movie is the central relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, which remains as fundamentally awesome as ever. Toothless is an incredible creation of the DreamWorks team, a wordless creature that nonetheless displays more personality than 95 percent of the talking animal sidekicks of other animated films. He’s the perfect combination of a cat’s playfulness, a human’s intelligence and a dog’s fierce loyalty…which gives a late plot development, once again a longstanding cliché of coming-of-age animated movies, a real feel of shock and horror. The first “Dragon” didn’t shy away from making Hiccup pay a real price for his actions, and the sequel sticks to this philosophy. This is at times a funny, cute, beautiful movie, with legions of baby dragons and scenes of humans and animals soaring through the clouds. But it’s that late betrayal, and the hard decision to try to move past it, that stick in your mind, and make this series a worthy successor to its spiritual godfathers at Pixar.