Modern filmmakers have an irritating misconception that whenever a film needs to go “epic” it means “unjustifiably long running time”. For example, the founding father of the 21st century blockbuster epic, Peter Jackson, has managed to turn a slender 300 page children’s book into a bloated nine hour mess of a trilogy that has added in unnecessary love triangles and Orlando Bloom cameos in a misguided attempt to justify an unjustifiable running time. Watching How to Train your Dragon 2, I couldn’t help but feel that Jackson and other filmmakers of his ilk should sit up and take note – it expands upon the universe of the original, going infinitely more epic in the process, and does it in a brief running time that means you won’t miss the last bus home.
The sequel is set five years after the first film, where socially awkward young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, a Canadian actor inexplicably hired for a role where the rest of his family are Scottish) managed to convince his village that dragons aren’t their enemies. Now that dragons and Vikings peacefully co-exist, Hiccup uses his dragon Toothless as means for exploring the world outside of their village, which not only gives this film the feel of an epic straight away, but will no doubt help flesh out the narrative for countless sequels to come. This begins with the introduction of a new character Eret (Kit Harrington) who blames dragons for the destruction of his fort, and plans to sell all of those from Hiccup’s village to villain/token black character Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who is putting together an army of dragons.
The animation is beautiful, operating at a high standard that even Pixar struggle to maintain these days. There was a recent joke in 22 Jump Street about sequels having higher budgets for no necessary reason, but here it’s clear the money has helped go on building a bigger, bolder canvas for entire worlds to be built on, and yet it’s the small things that resonate. Multiple sequences where Hiccup tests out his own homemade dragon wings allow for some of the most beautifully animated shots of clouds and mountains you will ever see, and the introduction of his long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett, an Australian playing a Scottish woman – no wonder Hiccup has an identity crisis with his accent) finds that she has been rescuing dragons to live on her secret island, the most impeccably designed piece of animation of recent years. For the design of the island alone, and the plethora of uniquely designed dragons that fly around there, the film deserves to be handed the best animated film Oscar straight away.
The flawlessness of the animation is also sensed in the dialogue scenes. In animated movies, the dialogue usually sounds like it’s heavily scripted, and is being said at a pace to fit the storyboards. A lot of the conversational dialogue here, especially in the early stretches of the film, seems improvised; an entire conversation between Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid about his impression of his father pivots around the gestures he makes whilst speaking, something which only really makes sense in a live action film, and the fact the film pulls it off here gives it a realistic human quality – even if there is a dragon in the background throughout.
In summary, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is one of the best animated sequels ever made. The four year gap between films speaks volumes at how important crafting the story was, as opposed to doing it quickly and raking in the money. If you loved the first one, you’ll love this, and if you didn’t, just give yourself in to the sheer scale of the entertainment; it’s that rare Hollywood movie that delivers grand spectacle in a quick, concise running time, and more of these are to be encouraged.