30 June 2014

How to Train your Dragon 2 doesn't quite soar

The first How to Train your Dragon may be the best film that Dreamworks has ever released. It was a surprisingly good coming-of-age film that followed Hiccup, son of the Viking Chief Stoick, as he learnt that dragons were not the monstrous enemies they once thought, but instead gentle, friendly creatures that were misunderstood, forced to attack Berk by an unknown force. Its strong, character based story allowed it to remain focused on the central theme of compassion over violence, making it one of the best films released in 2010.

How to Train your Dragon 2 picks up 5 years after the events of the first film. An older Hiccup is dating Astrid now, and the village and villagers have fully embraced dragons into their life. Stoick is ready to make Hiccup the new Chief, but Hiccup has other ideas - he is exploring the world outside of Berk with his dragon Toothless, trying to put together a map of the world while also searching for another Nightfury, a partner for Toothless. While exploring, he finds out that someone is amassing a dragon army, and naturally tries to talk them out of it. Meanwhile, Hiccup meets someone from outside of Berk, known as the Dragon Rider.

Where the first film was focused on Hiccup, his relationship with his father and his position within the village, this film instead focuses on a much larger plot. We learn more about Stoick's past and the world outside of Berk, but the first film worked so well because of the focus on the characters and how tight the story was, allowing Berk to feel like a self contained island in a world of it's own. By shifting that focus away from the characters, we lose some of the elements that made the first film stand out. It's frustrating to have to criticise a sequel for not following the same structure as the first, but the larger scope on display here doesn't work as well as the character based story did in the first one.

The plot itself isn't bad but it moves along at a real pace, barely allowing room for the humour and character moments that made the first film stand out. Hiccups friends from the first film return for this, but they have little to no impact on the story itself this time, feeling like they are there just to add some recognisable faces to the proceedings. New characters are introduced and end up going down the same route. Kit Harrington, better known as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, voices a young dragon hunter named Eret that works for the main antagonist. His character has things to do during the film, but he never really felt necessary to the story, and never develops a personality beyond being attractive - and even that isn't really used for anything other than a few joke moments.

This issue doesn't extend to the films main characters, consisting of Hiccup, Stoic and a new character that I wouldn't want to spoil. The best moments of the film come when these characters are interacting with each other, allowing the film to focus on the relationships between these characters, giving the film some of the emotional weight that the first film had, even if it is just for a few scenes at a time. It is in this scenes that the film really shines again, with new animation technology allowing for some of the most gorgeous and moving shots in the film. A large round of applause needs to be given to the animation and design of this film - each dragon feels like a unique creature, and there are frequently hundreds of them on screen at a time, some larger than we have ever seen before, reminiscent of Kaiju like monsters that provide an excellent sense of scale to the later scenes.

Can we talk about Hiccup by the way? Because wow, what a great role model for the younger generation. He is calm, rational, smart, inventive and compassionate, and on top of that he only has one leg, giving children with disabilities a fantastic character to look up to. The fact that this film doesn't dwell on his missing leg is one of the best parts of it, allowing us to see Hiccup as a fully realised character rather than someone struggling with a disability, a mistake that would have been easy to make, robbing the character of his strength and positivity. There is an argument to be made that by ignoring his disability he may as well be able-bodied, but I'm not going to make it - the film handles his disability with inclusion rather than ignorance. Hiccup is a fantastic role model for everyone, disabled or not, a character that showcases the best of humanity in the worst of circumstances.

How to Train your Dragon 2 isn't as good as it predecessor, but it takes a brave step in progressing the story rather than repeating it. Kids are still going to love this, possibly more than the first thanks to the stronger focus on action and the dragons themselves, of which there are more than you can shake a stick at. But this is a good kids film rather than the great animated film that many, including myself, had hoped for.

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