It’s been four years since we were first introduced to Hiccup and Toothless on the big screen, and although that’s a big gap for an animated title, we were at least treated to a couple of TV series to keep us up to date with events on the island of Berk. Now, with “How To Train Your Dragon 2”, it becomes clear that Dreamworks is in the process of building something cohesive and a bit special rather than, say, flogging a franchise to deaht (“Shrek”, I’m looking at you!)
Taking place five years after the first film, “How To Train Your Dragon 2” features Hiccup and his friends as young adults and the community of Berk content and at peace with the dragons. With the horizons open for exploration, Hiccup finds himself travelling further and further afield much to the frustration of his father, who’s intent on grooming him to be the next chieftain. However, Hiccup’s explorations bring him into contact with a band of dragon hunters in the service of Drago Bludvist, an insane self-proclaimed dragon master. Captured by the hunters, Hiccup is rescued by an enigmatic dragon rider with a startling connection to Hiccup himself and taken to a hidden ice fortress teeming with dragons. Faced with imminent attack, Hiccup decides to confront the massed forces of Drago’s dragon army and try to reason with him in the hope of saving the dragon sanctuary and Berk.
While it’s not necessary to have seen the two TV shows “Dragons: Riders Of Berk” and “Dragons: Defenders Of Berk”, there’s no denying they enrich the overall experience. This movie is one of those rare things: a sequel which retains the charm of the original while both broadening and deepening the story and the world in which it’s set. Like all the best children’s stories, “How To Train Your Dragon 2” is not afraid to go a bit darker and by the time the dust settles at the end of the film, our heroes have been taken to some very dark places indeed. The decision to age up the characters allows for a slightly more mature story and while there’s nothing in this that should unduly distress any little ones, they might find some scenes sad or upsetting. The character design continues to be a delight, with Toothless especially so downright adorable that I defy you not to wish you could have a dragon of your own. The returning voice cast are excellent, particularly Jay Baruchel as the noble and principled Hiccup and Gerard Butler as his father, the aptly named Stoic. America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T J Miller, Kirsten Wiig and Jonah Hill are good value in scaled back roles as Hiccup’s friends while Craig Ferguson cheerily and cheekily steals whole scenes as Gobber, especially when he delivers one of the most subtle and unexpected revelations in cartoon history. Of the new cast members, Kit Harrington makes a suitably roguish mercenary while Djimon Hounsou is formidably menacing as the twisted and evil Drago. Cate Blanchett’s enigmatic dragon rider Valka is a welcome wise and sympathetic presence however her accent is more widely travelled than any dragon-borne journeys can account for.
Tonally, this is very much the “Empire Strikes Back” to the first Dragon movie’s “Star Wars” and works as a tale of Hiccup’s coming of age as well as a rousing adventure film packed with dizzyingly good aerobatic scenes (spectacular in 3D IMAX), great character moments, genuine emotion and a couple of shocking twists which show the creators of this series aren’t afraid to permanently change things in the interests of a compelling narrative.
From the Mertmas’ point of view, this was a smash hit. He adored the dragons and Toothless in particular, loved the action sequences and was thrilled by the final showdown. He was noticeably moved during one of the film’s saddest moments, but overall thought it was brilliant fun.
One final thing I want to mention about the “How To Train Your Dragon” series, something I don’t believe it gets enough credit or recognition for, is the level of inclusivity it displays. Without any fanfare or fuss, it’s presented us with a whole range of characters with disabilities, from Toothless and Hiccup to Gobber and even the villainous Drago himself. There’s no attempt at moralising or pulling at the heartstrings either, the movies just show these characters doing what they do best and being heroes and villains because of who they are rather than because of/ in spite of their disability. With that, the feisty and capable female characters and Gobber’s implied revelation (you’ll know it when you hear it) you’ve got one of animated film’s most diverse cast of characters portrayed in the most inclusive way possible. Bravo.
“How To Train Your Dragon 2” is a worthy and worthwhile sequel, delivering a thrilling and satisfying adventure which expands the world of the Vikings and leaves you eager for the closing chapter of the trilogy, due in 2016.