While the 2010 CG animated film How to Train Your Dragon quickly became a beloved family film, I wasn’t entirely in its corner. The human characters just weren’t as interesting as the wild menagerie of dragons on display. In fact, none of the humans held my attention as much as Toothless, the little dragon who resembles E.T. with coal black skin and a set of wings.
The story of Viking warriors at odds with dragons didn’t grab me, especially not when the focus was on the formulaic, dysfunctional relationship between King Stoik (voiced by Gerard Butler) and his earnest goofball of a son Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel). When you’re given awesome scenes of dragons taking flight and a wounded Toothless learning to fly with a modified tail, I could have cared less about any of those irritating dragon-haters. The problems I had with the original How to Train Your Dragon have been corrected. This time, the humans are as engaging as the dragons.
Initially, we get a repeat of the tedious, Dad-why-won’t-you-listen-to-me dynamic from the original. The Vikings and dragons are now living in harmony (and playing a hilarious variation on soccer, involving Billy goats and flying) but Stoik is still slow at listening to anyone but himself. When Hiccup makes a personal discovery, the Vikings become aware of a danger that involves their future and the further existence of dragons.
The story takes a number of varying paths that differ greatly from the first film, particularly in the way it introduces Cate Blanchett’s character, which I won’t describe. I will say that her line readings are pleasantly (and appropriately) strange and her two introductory sequences (one in the sky, the other in a cave) are visual knockouts. The build up to her big reveal allows for imagery that is breathtakingly cool and right out of classic fantasy literature.
If there’s one image that sums up the appeal of the film, it’s Hiccup, hands folded behind his head, lying on Toothless’ back, while his pet dragon soars above the clouds. The many, spectacular dragon flights capture a sense of wonder and childhood fantasy that bring to mind The Never-Ending Story. In fact, this delivers the goods when portraying giant monsters at battle even more than the recent Godzilla remake.
Toothless remains an adorable CG creation with movement both self-consciously cute and fascinating in its strangeness. He’s in good company, as all of the fantasy creatures offer cartoon-like whimsy and vaguely menacing demeanors. Yet, the humans carry the story, as stronger, stranger tale of parental neglect and rediscovery is the heart of the film.
The nutty crew of human sidekicks (all Viking teens) are self-consciously offbeat and still irritating, though they seem to belong this time and not just included for hipness. This isn’t a half-hearted repeat, like Shreck 2 or Ice Age 2, but a quirkier, visually and thematically richer experience.
There’s a scene, late in the film, that reminded me of Bambi. I won’t describe what happens, only that what takes place is startling and memorably sad. The dynamic of dragon tamer Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, is altered in a way that is unusually cruel and emotionally intense for a children’s film.
The moment made me cry and reminded me of the infamously harsh “Man has taken her away” scene from Bambi that haunted children and stunned their parents for years. Most films aimed at children don’t aim that high, nor care to take a real risk at storytelling, but this one does.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Score)