DreamWorks Animation has always been great at being timely, but hasn’t always been that great at being timeless. Some of their films have stricken a decent balance between timely and timeless, like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Several of their films, however, feel very much like products of the time that probably won’t hold up phenomenally in another 20 years. Chris Sanders’ “How to Train Your Dragon” was a different kind of film from DreamWorks, being one half action/adventure and another half heartwarming tale between a boy and animal. In some respects, it was like a few of their earlier 2-D animated features, but done a million times better. It was the first DreamWorks film since “The Prince of Egypt” that felt completely timeless with no pop culture references and little modern talk, even rivaling some of the best efforts from Disney and Pixar.
While the first “How to Train Your Dragon” was wonderful, it’s kind of shocking just how fantastic “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is. Like any good sequel, “HTTYD 2” doesn’t merely rehash the original, but expands upon it. The first film created a magical, sometimes gritty world of its own with unique characters, technology, creatures, and mythos. After watching “HTTYD2,” this world feels so much grander than ever before. In the same vein of Pandora in “Avatar,” it’s a world you want to fully explore and see every sight of. Watching this world function, you’re left feeling nothing but grateful that the filmmakers put so much effort into bringing it to life.
Picking up five years after the original, Toothless the Night Fury dragon returns along with his buddy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Their friendship has brought dragons and the Vikings of Berk together to live in harmony. Hiccup is expected to take over his clan from his aging warrior father (Gerard Butler), but the zero to hero dragon rider still isn’t convinced that he’s ready for such responsibility. The coronation will have to be put on hold anyway as Berk faces its gravest threat ever. A hunter by the name of Drago Bludvist is capturing dragons to create an unstoppable army. Hiccup and Toothless set out to stop Drago, along the way learning more about dragon lore and Hiccup’s family.
Hiccup himself has notably grown up, both physically and mentally. Grown up is actually the best way to describe “HTTYD2.” It feels like the franchise is taking the “Harry Potter” route, maturing the tone with every passing film without going overboard. This is a film that doesn’t talk down to its audience and isn’t afraid to be subtle, dramatic, intense, atmospheric, or dark. There’s even a major death in the film that’s easy to get choked up over. Unlike some films that are dark just for the sake of being dark, “HTTYD2” earns all of these mature moments thanks to the structured pacing from writer/director Dean DeBlois and some strong character development.
“HTTYD2” is a film gushing with effective dynamics between Hiccup and Toothless, Hiccup and his father, and Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera). There’s also a poignant relationship between Hiccup and Cate Blanchett as a woman from his past, whose identity I won’t spoil even though the trailers already did. Even Djimon Hounsou as the villainess Drago is a weightier character than expected. Rather than just flat out making him a one-note “Captain Planet” bad guy, there’s some understandable reasoning behind his motivations and his plan to assume control of the dragons is actually quite diabolical. All of these performers bring great gravitas to their characters, taking their roles every bit as seriously as the actors on “Game of Thrones” take theirs.
Speaking of “Game of Thrones,” the action in “HTTYD2” is on par with some of the best in all fantasy epics. As much as I enjoyed “Edge of Tomorrow,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Godzilla,” and even “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” this animated feature is the summer movie that takes the cake in the action department. Every shot bursts with so much detail that the film at times appears bigger than life itself. The aerial sequences, as they were in the first movie, are breathtaking simulations of flight whether seen in 2-D or 3-D. “HTTYD2” might be animated, but visual consultant Roger Deakins is well worthy of a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for his work here. John Powell’s thrilling musical score only adds to the picture’s scale, making everything feel bigger.
“HTTYD2” is simply one of those movies that has next to no duds. Every scene is just so perfectly thought out and executed, not missing a single beat. One can only hope such effort will carry on in “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” especially since DreamWorks now have two superb films under their belt. For now, let’s just enjoy “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” a strong competitor to challenge “The LEGO Movie” for Best Animated Feature of 2014.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.