When it comes to computer-animated family fun, the only real contender is Pixar.
Their main rival, Dreamworks, has been mostly reliant on a number of franchises: Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda. So far, though, they’re yet to produce anything to rival the artistry of Toy Story. Wall-E, or Finding Nemo. Except perhaps How to Train Your Dragon, the story of one lonely boy and his flying, plasma-blasting lizard.
The first film had a real message about growing into yourself following, following your own path: Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a gangly, awkward teen, defies the wishes of his chieftain father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) in refusing to kill a wounded dragon. Instead, he befriends the creature and names it Toothless. Together they save the day from a really evil dragon, win over the girl, Astrid (America Ferrera), and change the settlements whole way of life.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 seizes upon this coming-of-age story and asks the question, “What happens next?” Five years on, the settlement of Berk is at peace with man and dragon living together in harmony. They’ve even developed a game akin to Quidditch involving some unfortunate sheep. Meanwhile, Hiccup is out in the wilderness, exploring.
The early interaction between him and Toothless is one of the film’s highlights – playful and beguiling, it’s an immediate reminder of both their personalities. Despite it’s good intentions, though, How to Train Your Dragon 2 eventually has to get on with the business of telling it’s story, which happens to return the return of Hiccup’s long absent mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) and the appearance of the marauding Drago (Djimon Hounsou).
Valka is by far the film’s most interesting new character, first seen rising above the clouds as a mysterious figure in a tribal mask. Torn between her duty as dragon conservationist and her love for her son, her shy demeanor is perfectly augmented by Blanchett’s vaguely Scottish brogue. It’s a shame that Hounsou’s Drago remains a mostly one-dimensional threat.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is at its best in the quiet moments: when the newly reunited Stoick and Valka share a tender jig or in Toothless’ puppy-like excitability. The action sequences are spectacular, swooping and diving through a fully realized world, but vocal talents the strength of Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, and newcomer Kit Harrington mostly get lost in the mélange.
Now that Pixar is tumbling down the rabbit hole with the likes of Planes 2, a sequel to a spinoff, it’s good that Dreamworks remains committed to its storytelling. How to Train Your Dragon 2 might lack the charm and originality of the first film, but it’s never less than engaging. Baruchel’s Hiccup remains a hugely likeable protagonist, cocky and yet insecure, and Toothless is a treat. If only the film’s narrative were as enthralling as its visuals.