DreamWorks Animation has been in a somewhat odd position since the release of the last How To Train Your Dragon movie four years ago in 2010. At the time I made a few comments about the company’s future:

“With the Shrek franchise closing this year, DreamWorks may have found a cast people care enough about to center their company branding behind… DreamWorks has once again raised the bar for themselves… DreamWorks has already proved they are a commercial equal to their main rival Pixar. Soon they could position themselves as a critical equal as well.”

So with that bright future ahead of them, how have their films fared since then? Well, from a business stand point, pretty good. Of the nine films released from 2010 to 2014, only one has not scored a “Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes — that one just barely missed making the mark. And all but one at least doubled its budget in worldwide box office sales.

httyd2-1That, however, is putting the best possible spin on things. Critically speaking things look pretty bad. Four of the nine films didn’t even make up their budget at the U.S. box office — and two more just barely did. That makes those movies feel like duds to the home audience. And, yes, all but one of the films isn’t “Rotten” on the Tomatometer. But not by a lot; only two managed to scrape over 80%. I posited four years ago that the first How To Train Your Dragon film might herald in an age where DreamWorks could be a critical powerhouse. But what has been their top reviewed film in that time? Puss in Boots. Not exactly a title that’s going to go down as a Hollywood classic!

In other words, DreamWorks has been coasting lately. Not doing bad enough to look like they’re failing. But not doing anything to look like they’re thriving either. Now this is supposed to be a review! So other than pointing out that what looked like a promising future has been somewhat of a disappointment, I’m not going to go into the issues behind all this. The big question is can the company get back on the rails with a sequel to the best film they ever created?

Things certainly are different in Berk since the town learned how to train dragons five years ago. Fear and constant battles are gone. Now dragon sports are all the rage. Instead of weapons, they have a brisk trade in dragon saddles and accessories. But Hiccup, whose thirst for adventure helped bring all this about, still has the itch. He scratches it these days by exploring and mapping the world, which has suddenly become a lot wider on the back of a dragon. One day he and Toothless are just about captured by some dragon hunters working for a dangerous man who is raising a dragon army. If that wasn’t enough to pique his curiosity, the hunters assumed he was the mysterious dragon rider who has been making things difficult for them. Discovering there are two other people in the world that seem to know at least as much about dragons as himself, Hiccup (and the audience) are off on a new adventure.

Normally I like to start these things discussing story. But here, I’m going to start with the animation. DreamWorks has really out done themselves with this film. The artwork here is gorgeous — stunning backgrounds, beautifully crafted sets, amazing creatures. Then there’s the “camerawork”. You really get the feeling that you’re flying with the characters, not just watching them, zooming through both peaceful scenery and battle scenes. In the first film I praised the “subtlety of the animated performances”. And I must say as good as it was last time, they have mastered it here. Tiny little almost throwaway movements by the characters can convey big emotions and make them seem like real, feeling people. I can’t say it any better than I did last time: “These are the types of responses real people have without thinking but are often glossed over in the broad strokes of animation”.

As for the story, well it really wasn’t fair to expect them to top the first film. So not holding them to that standard, they still get high marks. A lot of the movie is predictable, but some of that comes from it being a sequel — and commercials give away major plot details doesn’t help either! (Normally I try to avoid all big spoilers, but the biggest one was revealed in every single trailer! So I’m going to mention it here. Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.)

Where last time the plot focused on Hiccup and his father and how different they were, this time the emphasis is on the discovery of Hiccup’s long lost mother, his new relationship with her, and how similar they are. I was worried when she was first introduced because it just seemed too simple and convenient how she waltzed in after almost two decades and seemed to be accepted back in without question. However, she continued to show contrition in several other scenes which at least made it not feel so glib. I admit having his mother be into dragons was a very clever way to make all the things that made Hiccup seem weird and different in the first film make complete sense. Where the heart of the first movie was in the connection between a boy and his dragon, this time the heart of the story in in the bond between a young man and his mother and father. Unfortunately, with so much plot needing to be advanced we only get a few precious scenes of Hiccup getting to spend time with either of his parents. But fortunately every minute is worth it.

httyd2-2In an interesting change from the animated norm, the characters in the film age since their last outing. That doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal, but it was actually a very bold move by the writers, and the studio for allowing it. In an age where big budget blockbusters are packaged for franchises before they’re even released, changing the look of your main characters between films is pretty daring. Not only do you have to hope the audience who loves them already is going to accept the change, all your original merchandise is out of date too. Laugh, but think about it from an executive’s point of view and you’ll start to see why this is a rare decision in animation. It pays off completely here — both story-wise and I would bet marketing and product-wise.

With two new major characters, and a couple of new minor characters, one issue the story has is too many old faces trying to get some screen time. Rather than shoehorning in all the sidekicks from the last film so much, it might have been better to focus on one. My vote there would have been Astrid who (because we also get so much time with Fishlegs, Snotlout, Tuffnut, and Ruffnut) barely registers in the plot, and whose relationship with Hiccup is barely touched on, and when it is feels tacked on.

The other thing missing from this second outing that the first had a lot more of is the fun and humor. It’s definitely there, but the overall tone is more serious and dramatic. But I guess that’s just about the truth for everyone growing from a teenager to a young adult!

Unfortunately, once again the music got lost in the action. This is true of a lot of adventure movies, yes, but it’s such a shame here because the score is so good when it does come through. Fortunately, that’s a first viewing problem. See it more than once so you can enjoy the music!

Despite initial reservations before the original film, I really loved Jay Baruchel’s unique voice for Hiccup, and he continues to shine here. (I even spent the drive to the theatre doing a Jay Baruchel impression for my son — he wasn’t impressed!) Gerard Butler as Hiccup’s father Stoick the Vast really shines in this outing: fierce yet affable, and this time surprisingly gentle and affectionate. Cate Blanchett grew on me as Valka, but I thought her take on the character was a little odd, but that very well could have been an artistic choice on her part for a character all but living alone for so long. Djimon Hounsou is a fine villain as Drago, but could have been a lot more menacing for my taste. America Ferrera does a nice job as Astrid in the few scenes she gets.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a very worthy followup to the original. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights, but a sequel that doesn’t crash and burn is a rare thing in Hollywood. I’m not going to get suckered into saying something like “DreamWorks is back” or “This is a good sign of things to come”. This time I’m going to take the film as it is without any expectations. But if the studio wants to move beyond just coasting, these two films could train them on what it takes to fly higher.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

How To Train Your Dragon 2
DreamWorks Animation
June 13, 2014
102 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Dean DeBlois