17 June 2014

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, DreamWorks, 2014)


How to Train Your Dragon 2
2014, 102mins, PG
Director: Dean BeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois 
Cast includes: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Djimon Hounsou, Cate Blanchett, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill
UK Release Date: 11th July 2014

It’s no secret that the once thought insurmountable gap between Pixar and DreamWorks has been closing for a number of years. As Pixar have become more comfortable peddling wavering fare like “Cars 2” and “Monsters University”, DreamWorks have instilled a heightened maturity in their own work, a trend that arguably began proper with 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon”. A visually aweing and emotionally involving family feature, “Dragon” saw the studio bring increased artistic integrity and nuance to their product, combining audacious visuals and other film-making wonderment (John Powell’s score remains a treat) with sensitively drawn characters and rich fantasy realms. It was reassuring to know that as Pixar stumbled, other outlets could successfully fill the void.  It is a source of some disappointment then, to report that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” represents a substantial dip in this burgeoning franchise’s form. The sequel matches the original for spectacle, once again utilising the potential benefits of 3D to pleasing effect, but characters and wider universe fail to evolve satisfactorily. Audiences are exposed to a few novel concepts and fresh faces; yet those present impress minimal razzmatazz on proceedings. There’s a pongy whiff of “been there done that” storytelling, diminishing many of the film’s not insignificant aesthetic merits.

Set five years on from the events of the first film, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” finds both Viking and Dragon sharing an integrated Burk. Content with the beneficial alteration, leader Stoick (Gerard Butler) is keen to pass his role onto Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), but the youngster has little interest in assuming a position of authority. Instead he and reptilian accomplice Toothless patrol the skies, looking for new lands and creatures, hoping to extend their understanding of life beyond Burk. On their expeditions they encounter a menagerie of both friend and foe, including a mysterious figure from Hiccup’s past and the villainous Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a man intent on using dragons for his own nefarious gains.

It’s baffling that despite Hiccup’s newfound preoccupation with Cartography, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” struggles to open up its world beyond perfunctory augmentation. Director Dean DeBlois initiates an adventurous tone with welcome immediacy, orchestrating some marvellously designed moments of aerial action, the film once again using 3D to intensify the phantom ride element and depth of space dragons inhabit. Hiccup now sky-dives and Toothless remains a gorgeously animated instigator of lithe screen spectacle, DeBlois succeeding in matching the original movie’s intrepid visuals. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a consistently beautiful movie to absorb on an optical level, but in terms of narrative imagination and propulsive screenwriting it frustrates. The incredible surface detail can’t fully compensate for idle characterisation, and despite the introduction of new pieces, the game rarely changes. It’s not that the feature is hollow or emotionally inert; it’s that the standards of growth articulated in 2010 aren’t equalled.

Most of the problems can be viewed in direct correlation with the picture’s grasp of character. “How to Train Your Dragon” ripened the protagonists along simple but satisfactorily articulated lines, using a vibrant voice cast and moments of grounded sincerity to handily communicate its coming of age theme. Unfortunately DeBlois seems intent on repeating a lot of those same beats with the sequel, meaning Stoick, Hiccup and even Toothless glide through the too familiar adversarial motions. That might be forgivable if the new additions felt meaty or organically oriented to spice up formula, but this never proves to be the case. Hounsou’s Drago is introduced in a creepily arranged flashback, but his increased presence in the third act only serves to prove him a deficient nemesis with both an unmemorable look and motive. There’s a new female character too, voiced by an inconsistently accented Cate Blanchett, whom the script never bothers to find adequate placement for. She’s prevalent, but only to the extent that she adds a slight irregularity to the otherwise samey dynamic between Stoick and Hiccup. The sequel seems afraid to offer her a solo arc, instead labouring her with expository junk prior to harsh relegation as just another quirky sidekick. The attempt to involve a strong woman is admirable (and her opening sequence is sublimely fearsome) but it’s only worthwhile if she plays a fluid part in the text. Blanchett’s dragon-lady feels increasingly tacked on as the feature progresses.

Repetition slinks into the film’s environments promptly, which move away from the community of Burk and into a larger but disconcertingly vanilla natural world. The forests and lagoons of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are diligently formed, but they lack the spark and edgy lunacy of the Viking lifestyle explored in the initial foray. The follow-up opts for a more subdued tone, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but as a result cartoonish energy takes a backseat. Some might see this meditative detour as vital to the continuation of the series, but it personally left me pining for the uproarious eccentricities of the original, especially as the drama assumes a less engrossing composition this time around.

The continued tactile accomplishments of the “How to Train Your Dragon” brand ensure this sequel boasts modest worth, but when Pixar crash back into theatres next summer they might feel the competition has slackened. DreamWorks were surely hoping for a “Toy Story 2” scenario, but “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is more likely to conjure associations with the mild, underachieving “Monsters University” crowd. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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