How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best animated features ever to hit the Oscar race. It wasn’t going to win, of course. Toy Story 3 was destined to claim the prize in 2010 as a culmination of Pixar’s trilogy that had somehow gone Oscarless until then. Now four years later, the second installment of How to Train Your Dragon has retained much of the magic of the first but this time has shifted more emphasis to the dragons and less on the people. In this case that means the animators get to really show off what they can do. Turns out, what they can do is very impressive.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a giant leap forward with animation. It isn’t just the way the dinosaurs themselves are animated, which is otherworldly and unlike anything we’ve seen before, either in the first film or in any film like it. The diversity among the species, the array of features and color, it’s nothing short of spectacular. If you need any reason at all to see this film see it for the sheer artistry of the animation.
But really what drove the first film, and what drives this second film, are the relationships, not just between Hiccup and his family (both Dragon films have been among the few animated films to bring me to tears) but between the humans and the dinosaurs. This is a film about our dominion over all other living things and why we sometimes are too stupid or narrow-minded to recognize how intelligent they are and deeply loyal they can be when treated well.
We catch back up with Hiccup who has now bloomed into a handsome young man. He has taught himself how to fly using his own makeshift wings and still does all of his flying around with his trusty dragon Toothless. The key difference between the first film and this new film is that Hiccup is no longer a misfit outcast but is, rather, the town badass.
Without spoiling too much, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is once again about preserving the dragons. You already know from the name in the trailers that Cate Blanchett voices one of the main characters. If you don’t want to know anything more, there is a major spoiler coming your way.
Blanchett plays Hiccup’s mother in one of the more unusual moves in any animated film these days. To have a mother at all is rare but to have one who is herself a pioneer of a dinosaur sanctuary? Unbelievable. You mean she’s an actual person who cares more about the well being of a whole species than she does her own love life? You know most animated women just stand in the shadow of the male characters or else spend the entire film waiting for the male character to arrive and protect them. Frozen was an important exception and judging from its success you can see how eager humanity — men and women alike — has been for some breathing room in that suffocating dynamic. How to Train Your Dragon 2 kind of goes there, though not completely. For instance, this is, was and will always be Hiccup’s story. He, like almost all animated characters (or any characters in American film for that matter) is here to save the day. This is his hero’s story.
More action, more dazzling flying dragons, more Hiccup and Toothless. Less Astrid and the gang, who serve as side characters with not a lot to do but gaze lovingly at Hiccup at he sets out to save the dragons from destruction. The story does not flinch in its telling, and the relationships explored here go very deep. The overall theme of kindness towards dragons and all living things is what drives both Dragon movies, and other than the first rate animation, are the main reasons to see the film.
Hopefully this is a year when How to Train Your Dragon 2 might reap some of the rewards the original film should have received. The Dreamworks animators have significantly raised the bar here. Whether the Academy will pay attention or not is another story. I suspect that they might.