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Author’s note: This review contains spoilers of the 2014 film How To Train Your Dragon 2 by DreamWorks Animation. If you haven’t watched the film, go ahead and do that before reading this review. And shame on you, for not having watched such an amazing film.
When a good friend of mine first recommended to me the How To Train Your Dragon films, I was sceptical. I hadn’t seen an animated film in ages, and thus had the usual expectations of said genre. But, when I watched the first film of the franchise, I was left mouth agape. How could something possibly top that magnificent piece of storytelling? Enter How To Train Your Dragon 2, written and directed by the amazing Dean DeBlois and published by DreamWorks Animation.
A daring story accompanied by talented actors
HTTYD 2 as a film is deeper and more daring than the first instalment of the franchise. Where the first film touched on the power of friendship and perseverance, this one delves deep into abandonment, death and overcoming obstacles. However, HTTYD 2 does this in an elegant, family-friendly yet deep way that makes it a film for all ages. The team definitely caters to the older public as well, but they still leave headroom for a younger audience, expanding their target audience in a daring but successful way. Throughout the film, the balance between action and calmness is stable and proper, although I would have preferred some extension to character exposition and development — my example here would be Valka’s (Cate Blanchett) story; why did she not return to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Stoick (Gerard Butler) in twenty years, after having been kidnapped by the dragons? This might, however, be something the team is saving for the third instalment of the franchise, scheduled for release June 9th 2017, so I’ll cut them some slack. But do not screw it up two and a half years from now, DeBlois…
The pure emotions portrayed in this scene are why it’s one of the few scenes /…/ where I’ve shed a couple tears of compassion and empathy.
As always, the voice actors delivered a great performance, adding immensely to the characters’ believability. Jay Baruchel did an amazing job in portraying Hiccup, catching those simple mannerisms and details so very Hiccupesque. Whether it’s the prowess of the screenwriting team or the actors, the characters of How To Train Your Dragon 2 feel natural and realistic — the dialogue isn’t overtly polished and rich in finesse, there are human-like stutters here and there, and their portrayal of emotions catch the complexity of human emotions. Here, I would like to single out Hiccup’s speech at his father’s pyre — the way Hiccup neither wallows in grief nor is overly stoic adds to the character’s believability and, if matched with his personality, authority. The tiny loss of words here and there, the shivers in his voice as he softly parts with his father, the body language — all these feel incredibly natural and down-to-earth. The pure emotions portrayed in this scene are why it’s one of the few scenes in film history where I’ve shed a couple tears of compassion and empathy.
Out-of-this-world visual quality and innovative scoring
The visual fidelity and animation quality of How To Train Your Dragon 2 is astonishing and otherworldly, to say the least. Upon watching, I was shocked to see the tiny details they’ve polished and added to the world, such as single strands of hair swaying in the wind or the pattern of leather reflecting in the Nordic sunlight, which definitely added to the film’s realism and believability. The animation team also did an amazing job on particles — I would dare to say that we’ve reached the level of naturalism where the viewer cannot differentiate between real and animated clouds and fires, which is something I would never have said for any other 3D animation. A couple of other details also stuck in my mind after watching HTTYD 2; Hiccup’s cheeks are no longer as chubby as they were in the first film, which I enjoyed immensely — there was something about those baby cheeks which, while definitely a cute detail, lowered Hiccup’s authority in my eyes. If there had to be anything to criticize regarding the animation, I would pick the fact that Toothless’ eyes often shift in colour between shades of grey, green and blue, as they also did in the first film. Nit-picking, I know, but it had to be said.
For the Dancing and the Dreaming truly is a piece worthy of an Oscar /…/ and is one of the most beautiful pieces of lyrical poetry I have heard in film.
Finally, the soundtrack. I adored John Powell’s work in the first film, and he succeeds in outdoing himself this time around — after seeing the film, I listened to the score on repeat for a couple of weeks, astonished how emotionally accurate and exploring Powell’s work truly can be. Immediately in the opening scene, Powell gives a slight nod to the first film through the piece Dragon Racing, but soon evolves to show that the story and the characters have now matured and that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has a definitely different tone than the first film. The follow-up, Where No One Goes by Jónsi, the vocalist of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, is an amazing piece of music. Where No One Goes captures Hiccup and Toothless’ sense of freedom while flying and mapping the world, all while deviating from the norm that music pieces with vocals only belong in the end credits. Later on, Powell explores a wide array of instruments and progressions rarely seen in film scores with Flying with Mother, which captivates the film’s innovativeness and daring. For the Dancing and the Dreaming truly is a piece worthy of an Oscar — this duet between Stoick the Vast and Valka (here sung by Mary Jane Wells) gives a well-deserved breather just moments before the final battle with Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), and is one of the most beautiful pieces of lyrical poetry I have heard in film. DreamWorks definitely took a gamble with For the Dancing and the Dreaming, risking sounding Disneyesque with a mid-film musical-like piece, but they pulled it off perfectly, balancing sing-along and true emotion like professionals… which, I guess, they are. Finally, Stoick’s Ship gives a beautiful farewell to the character as he sails on his final trip aboard the pyre longboat. The piece melds perfectly in with Hiccup’s emotions, mirroring his anguish and pressure to stand up in his father’s shadow, and accentuates Valka’s importance in the boy chief’s life from henceforth.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an amazing piece of cinema, surpassing many, if not all, films I’ve seen this year. DreamWorks pulled off a deep story, complex characters, beautiful animations and an innovative and powerful film score like nobody’s business, and thereby set the bar for animations much higher than before. To me, HTTYD 2 single-handedly showed me a world where adults can enjoy animations and where the animators dare to explore more mature themes — your turn, Pixar.