Saturday, June 28, 2014

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

Sometimes I'm really really hyped for a sequel, or a brand new movie, to come out and it's practically all I can think about during the more mundane moments of my day. But the more time that goes by between installments the less this happens, I'm still happy about it but it's been so long that I can never quite remember how much I enjoyed it and why I should be so excited. Which was the case here, this was absolutely on my list of "movies that I need to see in theaters" and even though I had surprised myself by adoring the first film I just wasn't as hyped for it. So with that I can very clearly say that I think this movie was even better than the first, and when I saw the first film I wasn't crammed into a front row seat getting a crick in my neck the entire time!

How To Train Your Dragon 2

Five years have passed since the end of the first film and Berk has fully embraced their new lifestyle of incorporating dragons into every bit of their everyday lives. Everybody is leading happy lives even Hiccup, he's not so keen on his dad's proposal to start training him to be the next chief but that's more out of fear of failing than actual dislike. But when exploring to see just what else is beyond Berk's borders he stumbles upon over individuals who work with and use dragons and life becomes more complicated again.

Normally when I say "this story was full of great ideas!" I follow it up by saying "sadly they weren't fully realized and the story suffered from this but I liked the potential I saw in it!" which is 100% not the case here. I think in HTTYD2's case it was greatly helped that it was a sequel, it didn't need to establish the world-building or the characters, we already know who they are and that not much has changed from the first movie (Dragonriders of Berk aside, the movie tosses in one or two references but it seems that they've been very careful to keep that from interfering with the movies). And actually neither the setting nor the characters change very much over the course of the film either, there are small changes to both but those aren't the heart of the story.

I haven't found the usual plethora of reviews talking about this film so forgive me if I've simply missed some but I'm rather surprised that I haven't seen anyone talking about how much thematic mirroring is going on in this film because that's what I walked away from it thinking about the most. The story shows three different ways people interact with dragons, Berk is one of them of course where dragons are a cross between the coolest pets ever (the film's words not mine) and partners, and then the two new factions and ideas of Valka and Drago are introduced. Valka has practically "gone native" with the dragons and focuses on getting to know them by picking up on their body language and mimicking it so she can learn more about and from the dragons. Drago however hates dragons and he seeks to turn them into tools by using intimidation and fear on them. However, to know how to make someone fear you don't you first have to understand how they think? While Hiccup has always treated Toothless a bit like a human, with the way he's constantly talking to him and Toothless even "talks back" now (which I'm sure cat owners everywhere are familiar with), Valka and Drago treat the dragons like wild, moderately intelligent animals that they are and assign the values of "wise" and "evil" to them. Heck, Drago even reveals that the dragons have taken many things important to him and in that way his story mirrors what Hiccup's could have been if he hadn't seen Toothless's intelligence and acceptance of his incoming death in the first film, just the way that Valka saw proof of the dragon's intelligence here. It's certainly an interesting bit of symmetry and the quickest way for me to sum it up is "Princess Mononoke if the third option was by far the best one*" and speaking of which, I'm not the only one that thought a certain design was very Ghibli-inspired was I? 

To talk more about the characters, I wouldn't go so far as to call Hiccup an especially feminist character like this article does (which is a great article but spoiler heavy so only look at it after you've seen the movie) that's only because the movie neatly avoids all of the usual set-ups with "oh the girls need to stay behind!" so it doesn't precisely come up (although we did have some moments when the male characters say to the female ones "okay, this is your thing, what do you want us to do" which forget being just egalitarian, I rarely see any characters give up a leadership position so easily without fighting!) But to continue with the comparisons, I liked how this movie continued in the same vein as the first film and had Hiccup be a quieter, get-halfway-through-making-a-plan-and-then-start-acting character and he was contrasted with Astrid even more in this film as she was the one who was more willing to just go take action. And she's even grown from the first film herself, like many other people I also thought the movie implied at one point that maybe she should be the new Chief instead of Hiccup but I think it's more likely the film meant "I, Hiccup, wish I had the confidence in myself that you, Astrid, do because I'm not confident that I can be Chief" and just didn't phrase it right. Although, Stoick is already considering her his future daughter in law so he might've just assumed that she would balance out Hiccup the way that Hiccup and Gobber currently do for him (and yes I also caught that line implying he was gay and, yet again to disagree with the internet, considering he's such a small side character I'm not sure how they could have confirmed it other than explicitly showing him with a close male friend which I personally think has it's own whole slew of problems). It's actually a bit odd thinking about how little development Hiccup went through the film, he's certainly the main character and involved in all of the important events but they don't change him much, if anything he'll probably become a little more ready to fight which usually isn't the point of character development!

To talk a bit more about Valka, since she's a rather interesting character and one of the biggest players, I must disagree with that other article going around the internet that says she was "an interesting character who was tossed to the sidelines in the third act in favor of the main character" whole-heartedly. I understand what the article was saying, I've seen "Trinity Syndrome" myself and complained about it but this was a completely different situation, Valka was never meant to be a co-protagonist but always a supporting character, someone who lead vigilante dragon raids not someone who single-handily takes down an entire dragon army. I've also heard that, like Elsa in Frozen, she was originally conceived as a villain and I'm rather thrilled that they didn't go that route after all. By now I think it's rather passé to have two villains to provide an "ooooh, can the character convince BOTH of them to turn good, or will they be tempted by both ooooooh????" moment in a film, see my Princess Mononoke comments, and think that having Valka as a character who is portrayed completely in a heroic light, and a complicated one, is much more interesting and refreshing, especially considering that Drago is completely unredeemable and having a morally gray villain contrasted with a morally black villain doesn't work that well. 

To touch on the art briefly, there's no question these days that Dreamworks is on the same level Pixar is for computer graphics (back during Rise of the Guardians actually they were even creating new ways to render things such as sand which looked quite impressive) and the film never once looked off or sub par. The characters emoted, the action flowed smoothly, and the entire screen was always filled with little details to notice. I actually had a lot of fun looking at the dragons in the backgrounds of some scenes instead of the humans in the foreground for how animated they were, constantly moving around and their actions weren't metaphors for the conversation, they just seemed like further proof that Dreamworks spent a lot of time studying how real-world animals moved as a basis for this fantasy film. And I really loved the concept art they played during the credits, it's the first movie in a long time where I've come out of the film thinking that not only do I need to own it right this instant but that I really wanted the Art Of book as well, and again this is from watching the movie in the worst seat in the house!

One final point, I walked out of this film thinking "THIS is what the middle story in a trilogy should feel like" and rarely have I've been this satisfied by the middle installment of a story. It didn't explicitly create an even larger problem for the characters to face but instead helped create a more dynamic setting so that future conflict would come naturally (it's clear now that the vikings don't know much about the world outside of Berk and they are vulnerable to outside forces). This film's focus wasn't on setting or character development and yet it did achieve some of both, did include some shake-ups in where the character's stand, and, most importantly, it actually cleared up my one lingering question from the first film. In the first film I was always a little curious why the other dragons acquiesced to the Red Death so easily and figured that it must have been simple intimidation and fear, here we learn more about how the dragons themselves work and it's hardly no great leap to realize what was going on before. Heck, whenever we see the dragons, especially Toothless, trying to fight off the mental control of the alpha we see their eyes become slit-like which I clearly remember seeing in the first film, this isn't a case where they came up with the explanation after they finished the first film, that was legitimate foreshadowing!

All in all this film was marvelous and better than I had hoped (and I had already hoped that it wouldn't be a step down from the first film which was quite charming!). I know I've mentioned a few times that it's the second film in a trilogy and I'm going by hearsay there, I do believe that they announced after the success of the first film that it would have two sequels but I've heard conflicting thing about how successful this film has been and it sounds like Dreamworks might be on thin ice anyway. So, people should go see this film in theaters if they can not only to support the studio (since, as I understand it, those dollars count "more" than DVD buys, being a fan is a strange thing) and because it's wonderful, if this is where the movies have to end I'll be sad but at least they'll have ended on a strong note!

*since, from what I remember from the film, it made it pretty clear that the "nature" side was much better than the "human" side but I think that this film argues pretty strongly for moderation 

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