How to Train Your Dragon 2 movie review: flying higher
An absolute delight, even better than the first film; a gorgeously animated ode to peacemaking, nonconformity, and sticking to your principles in the face of ultimate adversity.
I’m “biast” (pro):
loved the first film
I’m “biast” (con): absolutely nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The world is bigger on dragonback, as Hiccup — dragon whisperer and heir to the tiny throne of the Viking island village Berk — is discovering, joyfully. And we are there with him in a stunningly animated return to this fantastical realm. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t only a glorious narrative expansion of the people and places we met in the first film, it also represents an astonishing leap in computer animation that makes Hiccup’s world even more touchably real than it was before. It seems like a paradox, but gorgeously authentic natural textures — leather, grass, stone, metal, fire — that fool our eyes work together in perfect imaginative harmony with wonderfully stylized human faces (and bodies) that don’t even attempt to make us believe we’re looking at actual people. The only uncanny valley here is a wondrous place that Hiccup discovers…
I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s five years since then teenaged Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel: RoboCop, The Art of the Steal) learned to tame an extremely rare, extremely dangerous Night Fury dragon, and now dragons and humans are happily living and working and playing together in Berk. Hiccup, now a young man, and Toothless — Night Furies have retractable teeth! — are exploring the world in all sorts of ways. Hiccup is creating an ever-growing map of his expanding world, and both he and Toothless are enjoying the freedom of flight: Hiccup’s halo jumps from Toothless’s back in midair, aided by the wings Hiccup has crafted for his flying suit, are breathtaking sequences of euphoric exuberance. Their flights are an especially delicious treat because they shouldn’t be able to fly at all. Toothless has an artificial tailfin, and it’s only with Hiccup mounted on the dragon and in control of the prosthetic that they can get off the ground. And Hiccup has an artificial leg, the result of an injury at the end of the first film, the presumably horrific details of which were skimmed over (though Hiccup here alludes to what might have happened). I’m not sure I can recall another movie — popcorn or arthouse or anything in between — in which the hero (as well as his sidekick!) has a significant disability that remains a mostly uncommented-upon aspect of who he is, and not everything his story revolves around. Hiccup is most definitely not defined by his disability.
Another thing in Hiccup’s life that could have been a source of contention and drama but — refreshingly — isn’t: his relationship with his girlfriend, Astrid (the voice of America Ferrera: End of Watch, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2), fellow dragonrider and all-around adventurer. There is no third party here threatening to come between them; there is no doubt about the strength of their partnership. And partnership it is, one based on devotion and trust between equals. Astrid is never a damsel in distress to be rescued by him… or at least not any more than Hiccup is a dude in distress to be rescued by her! And she is not at all shy about expressing her affection for Hiccup, whether it’s a kiss on his cheek or twisting a little braid into his hair (which remains there for the rest of the film!). I wish this were not so rare as to be worth noting, but at least a basic feminist foundation is starting to sneak its way back into mainstream movies. And it’s not just about Astrid. There’s also fellow dragonrider Ruffnut (the voice of Kristen Wiig: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Her), whose drooling over hunky bad guy Eret (the voice of Kit Harington: Pompeii, Game of Thrones) brings a surprisingly female-gazey angle to the perspectives onscreen.
Dragon 2 isn’t only feminist: it’s also humanist in a way that expands upon the “let’s be smart rather than violent” approach to life that made Hiccup such an inspiring hero in the first film. As Hiccup’s travels lead him to encounter other people who’ve tamed dragons — or, rather, subjugated them — the story here becomes about struggling to protect Berk and its pet and companion dragons from dragon thief Drago (the voice of Djimon Hounsou: The Tempest, Push) and his slave-dragon army. Hiccup’s father, chief Stoick (the voice of Gerard Butler: Olympus Has Fallen, Movie 43), has encountered Drago before, and insists that “men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.” Hiccup is having none of it: he will try to reason with Drago, and will pay a high price for sticking to his principles… but probably not one as high as reacting with violence would have required.
The feminism and the humanism gets wrapped up together in Valka (the voice of Cate Blanchett: The Monuments Men, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), who runs a sort of dragon sanctuary in a hidden place where Drago cannot find them… or at least he hasn’t until now. She is a remarkable oddball of a character, a woman who has made enormous sacrifices to her own well-being and, arguably, to that of those she loves in order to protect dragons, to serve this higher cause she feels so strongly about. Yeah, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois snuck some stealthy environmentalism into his cartoon, too: humans are happier living in harmony with the natural world and its other residents; humans who misuse the planet and its creatures are villains. Flocks of dragons in a riot of sizes and shapes and colors swarm so gorgeously in Valka’s sanctuary that it’s impossible not to get swept up in their beauty and wondrous variety, as Hiccup does. We want them to be saved… and we get powerfully invested in stakes that are so much higher than the personal for Hiccup, or for any other single character onscreen.
It’s ideals and philosophies that are at odds here, that are tested here, if still in spectacular and hugely entertaining fashion. That’s an amazing thing for a movie supposedly aimed at children to do.
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of How to Train Your Dragon 2 for its representation of girls and women.