This review contains minor spoilers.
If there was one film that set fire to Dreamworks’ animation competition with Pixar, it was How To Train Your Dragon. Released in the same year as the overly-nostalgic and saccharine Toy Story 3, HTTYD proved that you could create a PG that was as high on laughs as it was on soul, while also challenging and surprising its audience. Any film for children that ends with an amputation is sending a pretty clear message; this is not the patronising fluff you have come to expect from modern cinema.
Hiccup may have lost a leg last time round, but thankfully he and pet dragon Toothless haven’t lost their mojo for this second outing. The strength of this franchise lies in the man’s-best-friend relationship of Hiccup and Toothless, and as long as this remains the central focus, the Dragon films will be head and reptilian neck and shoulders and wings above anything else. Everyone’s favourite dragon here remains the best silent movie star since Wall-E, saying it best when he says nothing at all. While this central relationship is fantastic, the change in scale surrounding the duo sometimes feels a little forced, and this sequel doesn’t quite have the charming simplicity of the original.
First, something must be said about the vocal work. Too often in animation big stars are drafted in for transparent commercial reasons, but here the characters come before the names. Jay Baruchel is still playing Hiccup with all the sarcastic swagger you would expect from a twentysomething dragon master, while Gerard Butler as his father Stoic provides both booming Scotch battle cries and warm, tender moments with estranged wife Valka, who lilts around the Anglo-Scottish border courtesy of Cate Blanchett. Elsewhere, laughs come from Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s wooing of Ruffnet (Kristen Wiig), in a strange Viking version of their Superbad days. Part of the reason that these characters work is because the writing is superb; Hiccup and his dragon rider friends speak with the self-aware irony of unemployed post-graduates.
In the showing I attended, the audience was full of people the same age as Hiccup, and certainly they are facing similar problems. Early on in the film, Hiccup is told by his father of his impending leadership responsibilities on Berk. Riding around on a dragon all day might seem like the best way to spend your time, but eventually you have to come inside, log on, grind out and face the reality of the working world, even if you are chief of a small island.
As if predicted by the gods of signposting, Hiccup soon has to prove himself as a valuable leader when a group of dragon hunters led by the shadily-named Drago Bludvist (who clearly had no choice in life but to be a maniac) threaten to capture all the dragons and create some kind of army so that they can, you guessed it, take over the world. Such a scheme provides wondrous animation and one of the strongest aspects of the film is the rendering of dragons in flight. This is not just about dodging, dipping, ducking, diving and dodging, but also the way in which the dragons interact with their environment (and what an environment it is). The designers have captured rocky wastelands and bountiful forests with some inspiration from late Zelda games, and they take great delight in having dragons creep through mountains, skim across oceans and pause for reflection amid thick cloud formations. In one particularly beautiful moment, Hiccup and Toothless encounter Valka in the sky, and almost dance around one another with an elegance that shows true pride in design and character.
There is plenty of outstanding stuff here that will have audiences punching the air in glee or wiping away a solitary tear. The reunion of Stoic and Valka is delicately expressed through an old folk song and dance, which has equal measures of joyousness and regret, while Hiccup and Toothless’s relationship is tested in the shocking culmination of a second act dragon battle. Unfortunately, the film is never as good as its second act, and certain key issues are washed over in a fight, one fears, against running times and the BBFC. After moments of true maturity, the final act seems rushed and a little bit flimsy, as you realise that Drago’s evil name doesn’t necessarily make him a natural with world-domination planning.
In truth, poorly written villains seem to be endemic in Hollywood, and often come across as an afterthought. The first Dragon film benefited from having no big bad, as relationships could flourish, but here Drago distracts from other new characters and never really convinces. There is some bungled flashback stuff about his history with Stoic, but his motive is not clear or engaging. Villains work best when they have no motive at all (The Joker) or when their objective is entirely personal, built on revenge (Silva in Skyfall). In the end, despite being in control of a mahoosive Alpha Dragon (which is also not sufficiently explained), Drago Bludvist is nothing more than a silly name. There is also another debate to be had about the casting of Djimon Hounsou; Drago is a Viking, and seems to hail from Russia, almost Mongolia (he looks like a Hun), but is voiced by a black-African actor with a black-African accent. Recently the debate has reopened about black or Latino actors voicing either villains or comedy sidekicks, while the white actors are almost always the heroes. While I’m not sure the ears of children are so attuned to equating accent with race, it’s clearly a pattern that needs some scrutiny.
There is no doubt that HTTYD2 is one of the most accomplished films of the year, but I only wish that more had been done to linger on some of its more poignant moments, instead of overstuffing the plot and ushering the audience towards the uninspired climax. It frequently soars, but it never quite ignites.