When making a sequel nowadays, film-makers often reference The Empire Strikes Back as their model. Bigger, Bolder and crucially darker, that’s the intention. But darker is too often confused with more mature, with deeper and with better. So when Lilo & Stich co-director Dean DeBlois declared that his sequel to the surprise hit How to Train you Dragon would be aiming to be The Empire Strikes Back of animated films, everything seemed set for a by-the-numbers successor, to a film that managed to bring something new to the table. Thank God then, that what we get instead, is a film that indeed is bigger, actually is more mature and really does succeed in being, yes, better than the first.
The film opens in a similar way to it’s predecessor. Jay Baruchel (again a perfect vocal match for his character) as Hiccup reintroduces us via voice-over narration to the Viking community of Berk which since the end of the last film, has become an idyllic society in which dragons and humans are able to peacefully coexist. However the tranquility is soon disturbed by power mad tyrant Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is intent on capturing the creatures for his own army.
It’s clear from the opening few minutes that a significant amount of time has passed since we last saw the characters on the big screen. Not only have dragons become assimilated with the Vikings, not only have our heroes aged, but relationships have evolved. The film does a strikingly good job at establishing relationship dynamics and then developing them as the narrative progresses without resorting to clichés. For instance, the cute love story between Hiccup and Astrid is allowed to flourish without any unnecessary complications or contrived break-up drama (it’s nice to see everything work out for once). They have now reached a happy, stable point in their relationship, made evident by an adorable scene early in the film. Their back and forth feels genuinely real and human, the chemistry is there and it’s a joy to watch the two spend time together. In any other film you’d probably find yourself wanting more scenes like this to substantiate their connection but that’s not the case here, it’s legitimized really well, early on. Anyway their relationship isn’t the film’s most affecting.
The really touching connection is still that between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless. Their E.T-esque bond was what really distinguished the first film from the rest of Dreamwork’s catalogue. For once the studio’s focus wasn’t on cheap pop-culture references or fart jokes. It was on storytelling and emotion, at the heart of which was the tale of a boy’s first pet, a pet that just happened to be a deadly fire-breathing dragon. However, seeing as dragons have now become accepted by the citizens of Berk, the sequel is unable to capitalize on the “forbidden friendship” idea that was central to the first film. Instead, it finds its own way to test their relationship but to say anymore on that matter would be an inexcusable spoiler. The film has plenty of highlights, but the majority of them are when the duo are on screen together. The way DeBlois is able to communicate such a touching relationship when only one of the characters can actually talk is commendable, but lots of animated films can pride themselves on that kind of thing. Rarely however, has such a nuanced dynamic been portrayed this way, animated or not.
The flight sequences are just as graceful and beautiful as before, providing numerous memorable visuals, in fact, practically every shot is breathtaking. The film has an almost Speilbergian commitment to producing a childlike sense of awe and wonder in its audience whenever possible. So much so that every 5 minutes we’re treated to another wide shot of something amazing happening (usually involving several of the film’s various colourful and unique different species of dragon) in superb 3D, whilst the music blares out fervently; but it is so effective that it’s hard to get cynical about it.
John Powell’s terrific score (HTTYD’s secret weapon) builds upon the themes and motifs of his Oscar nominated work on the first film. Working with the stunning animation (which is so populated, vivid and detailed that it demands multiple viewings to fully appreciate) and outstanding cinematography, the music serves as a powerful enhancer of the film’s emotional beats, taking us through the exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows of Hiccup’s story. In one memorable instance, two characters struggling to express overwhelming emotions try to connect through song (it makes perfect sense in the film don’t worry). As the intimate scene plays out, Powell brilliantly conveys a sense of pain and loss and then smoothly transfers to a powerful celebration of reconciliation, carrying us from near tears to a joyful grin so deftly that we don’t even notice the switch. And the Toothless and Hiccup flight theme is just as triumphant as ever.
Now let’s return to that Empire Strikes Back comparison. Darker might seem like an odd direction for an animated sequel to take, after all it’d be pretty strange if Despicable Me 3 decided to start injecting a sense of doom and tragedy into it’s story but with HTTYD it does make a lot of sense. Afterall, this isn’t a comedy, it’s got its share of well judged laughs for sure, but just because the characters are animated and the creatures are cute doesn’t mean this is purely lighthearted. It isn’t just for kids either, there is obviously stuff to keep youngsters entertained (sheep slapstick!) but really this is a fantasy epic in the same vein as Harry Potter or even The Lord of the Rings.
DeBlois complex treatment of his characters and story may, in places, be challenging for younger viewers but it is executed perfectly. The director has obviously made a conscious decision to not pander to his audience, he instead treats them with respect. Motivations are complicated and never one note, morality is rarely overtly clear cut, and some tragic subject matter is touched upon to rival The Lion King. Whilst this might seem a little odd considering how optimistic its predecessor was, the choice to go darker really does benefit by helping to tell a more engaging story (with a real antagonist this time).
Add to all of this some intricate, imaginative action sequences and you’ve got an adventure to contend with any Marvel Blockbuster or Transformers installment for popcorn thrills. But you also have some real, moving drama and a heartfelt story. This is a sequel that delivers on every front; it pulls off everything it needs to tremendously, it increases the scale, expands the mythology, goes to unexpected places and still holds on to what worked the first time. So yeah… The Empire Strikes Back it is.
How to Train your Dragon 2 (2014), directed by Dean DeBlois, is distributed in the UK by Twentieth Century Fox , Certificate PG. Watch the trailer below: