Skip to main content

Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things.

How to Train Your Dragon 2
(2014)

(SPOILERS) There’s good reason to be cynical about the current state of animated sequels, what with every studio shamelessly strip-mining properties for franchise potential, irrespective of whether they merit it or not. No one is screaming for more Cars and Kung Fu Panda. Actually, they probably are, but they don’t know any better. DreamWorks is particularly guilty, although they at least never betrayed lofty pretensions the way Pixar did. That the first How to Train Your Dragon was such a pleasant surprise, the best animation from the studio since the first Shrek, instantly rang warning bells. Were they going to relentlessly plunder Hiccup and Toothless, creating disdain the way they did with that series? The answer is no, fortunately. How to Train Your Dragon 2 may not scale the heights of the first outing, but it more than arrests the studio’s backwards slide in quality.


Returning director Dean DeBlois cited The Empire Strikes Back as informing his approach to the sequel, hardly a surprising touchstone, but one he feeds from in all the right ways. This doesn’t mean Dragon 2 ends on a cliffhanger, or that Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, whose vocal nuances ensure that his character will never be the most butch of heroes) must undergo a training regime to make him a master before discovering his parent is a villain. 


He does meet his long lost mum, and loses his dad, which ensures the series’ internal mythology grows in entirely complementary ways. It’s refreshing to have a character, in an environment beset by Marvel, Joss Whedon, and Steven Moffat, where a character dies and stays dead. Best of all, DeBlois ensures this has a powerful emotional impact (the only shortcoming is that, in a movie that is always moving, the hero is back to being supremely perky for the subsequent set piece).


More than that, DeBlois even has his own involving take on turning to the Dark Side, in which the loveable Toothless has his mind possessed by a Great Bewilderbeast, an “Alpha” dragon that can direct the actions of any dragon. That Stoick (Gerard Butler, having much more fun, and showing much more emotional range, than we ever see in the flesh) should fall at the fiery breath of Toothless makes the loss all the more potent, and ensures this is a family film more in the early Disney tradition of not soft-pedalling loss and darkness.


It leads to a bracing climax, far superior to the majority of last summer’s blockbusters (which, even the best of them, fell back on blowing shit up), in which little Hiccup challenges the Alpha. The massive monster mayhem of the Alpha is also much more impressive than the massive monster mayhem of Godzilla or the previous year’s Pacific Rim, because there’s emotional investment in the carnage on display.


The character design is generally no more distinctive than any other CGI affair, which is, alas, one of the banes of a form of animation that chooses to play things safe. But DeBlois had previous directed one of the few Second Golden Age Disneys to mix things up, Lilo & Stitch, and, within the physical features that could easily be dropped into Rise of the Guardians or The Croods, he ensures there’s warmth and idiosyncrasy.  


The voice cast, curiously divided into a Scottish older generation and American younger, generally acquit themselves well. Kit Harington, formally consigned to slightly wet leading roles, has a bit of fun with the Han Solo-esque Eret, while Craig Ferguson provides the majority of the chuckles as Stoick’s right-hand man Gobber (“This is why I never married. This, and one other reason”). I’m not so sure about Cate Blanchett’s Scotty accent as Valka, Hiccup’s newfound mumsy, though, and Djimon Hounsou is shoutily hissable but one-note as villain Drago.


Perhaps Dragon 2’s most illustrious aspect is that, unlike say Madagascar, it absolutely is not propped up on its comic sidekicks. The events befalling the main players are much more engaging, such that the antics of Hiccup’s crew (comprising America Ferrara, Kristen Wiig, Joan Hill and Christopher Mintz-Bleeding-Plasse) could be blissfully excised without anyone much noticing. The reunion of Vaka and Stoick is a quite wonderful scene by any standards; live action movies would do well to be so moving without descending into manipulative mush (notably, it also, wisely for a family movie, sidesteps offering Valka recriminations for abandoning her family).


So there’s good reason this was the biggest animated movie of 2014, even if it showed a disappointing performance in the US (quite why is anyone’s guess; the taken for granted title, and inability to explain why it was different to the first might not have helped, but that didn’t hamper Despicable Me 2). It may make a meal of its message in the final stages (“This is what it is to earn a dragon’s loyalty”, and too much talk of Hiccup as a voice of peace), unnecessary as it has already set out its stall with accomplishment, but this is a minor criticism. There’s good reason to look forward to How to Train Your Dragon 3 in 2018, even if we have to suffer Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Croods 2 in order to get there.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.