Ryan Smythe ‘15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
After the monster success of Disney’s Frozen at the end of 2013, a summer without Pixar leaves a dearth of quality animated movies for a hungry audience. What better time than now for Dreamworks to roll out its franchise-building How To Train Your Dragon 2?
As the film opens with what can only be described as Quidditch on dragons, we are reintroduced to the core cast of the first movie five years later. Stoick the Vast is looking to hand down the title of chief to his son, Hiccup, who spends his days riding Toothless from island to island, charting the archipelago his home is located in. Director and writer Dean DeBlois, in collaboration with creator and writer Cressida Cowell, do a good job keeping the opening brief, packing as much necessary background information in each scene without overloading the dialogue. The plot soon unveils itself with the introduction of Hiccup’s mother Valka as she tirelessly works to protect dragons from the threat of dragon trappers.
The relationship between Hiccup and his mother, who was presumed dead for 20 years, is odd. Described as “feral” by her son, Valka comes across as a strange cross between Rafiki and Timon/Pumba from The Lion King. On one hand, she offers an escape from the world that Hiccup desires more than being named chief like Timon and Pumba offered to Simba, while on the other, she carries a staff much like Rafiki, moves much like he does, and gives counsel to her son in his time of need. Her combination of wisdom and rebellion works well, and she easily asserts herself as a strong character.
The characters are among the strongest aspects of this movie. From Valka to the dragon trapper Drago and everyone in between, there is no weak link in the cast. Drago especially shines, brutally taking the reins of the audience’s focus and forcing them to acknowledge his greatness. Voiced by Djimon Hounsou, his mere presence on screen threatens the lives of anyone who dares oppose him, human and dragon alike. Matched up against the pacifist Hiccup, on more than one occasion it feels like there is nothing that can be done to end his reign of dragon terror.
The only part stronger than the characters is the animation and character modeling of the dragons. Based off of various animals, the hundreds of dragons shown off are spectacular. In some scenes it is the sheer number animated that is most impressive, but in more personal scenes, it is the personality displayed that is the focus. When both are paired together, however, the spectacle on screen is second to none.
Going hand-in-hand with that are the flying scenes. One of the highlights of the first movie, they return in all of their vertigo-inducing glory. The camera angles chosen show off how much 3D animation can accomplish, creating some of the most memorable scenes in any film. This series is quickly taking the award for greatest flying scenes in any movie, putting both Avatar and the Iron Man movies to shame. Without a doubt, the dragons are the real stars of How To Train Your Dragon 2, stealing every scene in which they appear.
With a combination of facial expressions and movement compensating for their lack of a voice, each dragon is given a personality to compliment that of their rider. While the writers use the pairing of Hiccup and Toothless to show off deeper character traits, the other pairings are under-utilized. While used often for comedic purposes, the rider and mount dynamic is lacking outside of the main duo, and while it does not detract from the overall quality of the film much, it leaves a lot of possibilities unrealized.
Overall, the movie was a fantastic offering by Dreamworks, perfectly capitalizing on the lack of Disney opposition until November 7 when Big Hero 6 hits theaters (and not counting the merchandise-fueling Planes: Fire & Rescue being released by DisneyToon Studios). How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the best counter to Frozen that the rival animation company could have dreamed of, and should put up big numbers in its opening weekend.
Overall Grade: A-