Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dreamworks Animation Studio is one of the most successful producers of animated movies in the world, but they are by no means consistent with their output.  Up through the release of the first Shrek film, Dreamworks' intentions seemed to be to challenge the Disney formula and create darker, edgier, and more adult-oriented films (The Prince of Egypt, Antz, etc.). But after Shrek? There was no more Disney formula to challenge; Shrek pummeled Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire at the box office that year, and essentially started a new trend in animation.  This trend includes, but is not limited to:

1.) an unnecessarily celebrity-studded voice cast
2). pop-culture references
3.) non-musical narrative
4. CGI animation ONLY

Looking for the perfect example?  Go and watch Shark Tale again.  Every single trope of the 2000s era of animation is embodied by that mass of celluloid.  By 2005, Disney was the one aping their former rival, with the somewhat embarrassing release of , the studio's low point of their 2000s slump.  Now where am I going with all of this?

It amazes me that a studio born of Jeffery Katzenburg's ill will against Disney actually produces movies with genuine heart and beauty nowadays.  The years after Shrek were a weird time for animation, and though Pixar films kept up their integrity, all other animation studios were constantly trying to capture that certain Shrek-ness (Hoodwinked).  But somehow, someway, things changed.  First, Dreamworks' own Kung Fu Panda changed things up by relying on characters, story, and visuals to carry it through without a pop-culture joke in sight.  While Dreamworks' output is still inconsistent, films like Megamind and How to Train Your Dragon really cemented its status as one of the great animation studios not just in terms of profitability, but in quality.

So here we are, in our first Pixar-less year since 2005, and besides The Lego Movie, animation hasn't had much box office presence (show of hands... who actually went to see The Nut Job?).  I was looking forward to seeing How to Train Your Dragon 2, but I hadn't seen much promotional material and wasn't really sure what to expect.  What Dragon 2 delivers is everything you should expect from a great sequel; expansion of the world, further development of the characters, and advancement of the first film's story while not undoing the point of the first film.  It's a far cry from the Shrek-inspired films of the 2000s, and compared to them, it's a freakin' masterpiece.

No, you know what?  It's a masterpiece all on its own.  This isn't just a kid's movie with some cheap adult humor or references; its a damn good movie that a person of any age can watch and enjoy.  We catch up with the now twenty-year-old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, pretty much born to play this role)who has completely changed his Viking village's way of life by integrating their former enemies, the dragons, into everyday life.  Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is preparing Hiccup to take his place as leader of the village, but Hiccup would rather explore the world and chart new territory with his personal dragon, and best friend, Toothless.

Things change when Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) stumble upon another Viking culture nearby that has enslaved an army of dragons.  The leader of this clan is Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who at first seems to be just a run-of-the-mill power-hungry dictator, but turns out to be more sinister than Hiccup could have expected.  Along for this ride are his "friends" in the from of the jock-like Snotlout (Jonah Hill), bickering twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (T.J. Miller and Kristen Wigg), the dragon fanboy Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and  Hiccup's former mentor Gobber (Craig Ferguson).

Dragon 2 combines so many different tones and story threads that it's a true testament to the filmmakers that the thing isn't a mess.  It flows beautifully between hilarious and melancholy, exciting and calm, breathtaking and tear-jerking.  The stunning visuals draw you in with their incredible scope, and the colors and designs are so warm and inviting that you just want to live there.  3D was a major selling point of the first film, giving the viewers that "feeling of flight," but honestly, that film could give me the same feeling if I were watching it on an iPhone.  Just kidding.  Oh please, for the love of God, never ever watch any movie on your iPhone.  The point is, the framing, tracking, and length of the shots are what create the feeling of flying in How to Train Your Dragon, not necessarily the 3D effect.

The same is absolutely true for its sequel.  An early scene with Hiccup riding Toothless through the clouds is eye-melting in how beautiful and visceral it is.  Throughout any of the flight scenes, the speed feels real and the action is that much more exciting.  It also helps that the action scenes are grounded in great character moments between Hiccup and his Dad (and another character who will not be mentioned here DESPITE being completely ruined in the trailer).  I was genuinely surprised by just how well the dramatic moments work, never veering too melodramatically and never playing it too safe.  This is sort of like Dreamworks' own Lion King, if that makes any sense.

There are heavy moments to be sure, and spoiling them here would be no fun.  But there's humor here as well, and while I didn't feel that all of the comic relief characters were necessary, there are parts that made me laugh really hard.  The greatest laughs come from the subplot involving one of Drago's henchmen, Eret (Kit Harrington) and Ruffnut, who has an instant crush on  him despite the other boys' continued attempts to impress her.  Astrid unfortunately doesn't have much presence in the film, which is a shame because she was one of my favorite characters in the first film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 can now join the great (and exclusive) pantheon of sequels that are just as good, if not better, than their predecessors.  Personally, the first film represents the very best that Dreamworks can do in the modern era of animation (meaning CGI only animation, celebrity voices, etc.), and the second represents the very same.  Chris Sanders (creator of Lilo and Stitch and the first How to Train Your Dragon) handed over the reigns to his long-time collaborator Dean DeBlois this time around, and none of the heart or creativity from the first film got lost in the transition.  It's a shame that the film hasn't been turning heads at the box office, and will ultimately be another minor disappointment (financially) for the studio, joining the ranks of Mr. Peabody and Sherman and Rise of the Guardians.  Hopefully it doesn't discourage them from making ambitious and thoughtful animated gems like this one.