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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.