The title beasts of DreamWorks' How To Train Your Dragon films seldom go for such archetypal status. Particularly in the new film, How To Train Your Dragon 2, they approximate domesticated animals, serving as winged steeds for the boisterous Vikings. Toothless, the dragon of our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), behaves like nothing so much as a cheerful dog, prone to chase sticks and slobber over his human best friend.
Hiccup and Toothless bridged human/dragon hostilities in the first How To Train Your Dragon, possibly DreamWorks' best animated film to date. (Expect the follow-up to be the summer's biggest money-maker.) The opening scene of the sequel, set five years later, establishes how completely dragons have been integrated into Viking society with a Quidditch-like airborne competition, only one that uses nonplussed sheep instead of golden snitches. For a while, How To Train Your Dragon 2 seems contest to coast on slapstick gags involving the hilariously grotesque creatures, but then it blindsides the audience with a startling, surprisingly powerful plot twist.
The sequel's first hour moves with almost mechanical efficiency, alternating between clearly defined motivations and comic relief, while making room for lovely set pieces. An early sequence finds Toothless flying above the clouds with Hiccup, who experiments with freefalling. (Sidebar: why does every big summer movie seem to have a character in freefall?) Ambivalent about becoming heir to his macho father Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup runs afoul of a band of dragon-trappers, lead byEret (voiced by Kit Harrington of "Game of Thrones"). The script bites off big mouthfuls of exposition involving both a mysterious guardian of dragons and a ruthless enemy called Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who enslaves the beasts for his army.
While the Vikings contemplate using violence to stop the Bludvist problem ("I'll bloody his fist with my face!" asserts one of Hiccup's dimwitted buddies), an overconfident Hiccup seeks a diplomatic solution. En route to Bludvist, however, he encounters enigmatic, masked dragon-rider (voiced by Cate Blanchett) who holds the answer to a mystery from Hiccup's childhood. I won't spoil the character's identity, but behind a costume design that seems inspired by indigenous Australians, she has a personality that subtly satirizes the kind of people who are really, really serious about animal rescue.
Just when How To Train Your Dragon 2 seemed like a fairly conventional CGI comedy-adventure, it ups the stakes enormously with a turn that's rather shocking for a family film. DreamWorks Animation tends to deliver predictable jokes, story arcs and celebrity voices, but Dragon 2 touches on much heavier emotions than usual for the studio. Imagine Shrek taking a wrong turn in the land of Far Far Away and finding himself in Westeros' Seven Kingdoms.
The last act proves particularly fraught because it demolishes Hiccup's understanding of dragons, and symbolically conveys the idea that pets aren't just stuffed animals that move, or people in different shapes. It's like the moment when a seemingly tame dog snaps at its owner and shows that there's a little wolf beneath the surface. Little kids might find this development particularly upsetting.
Writer/director Dean DeBlois has likened Dragon 2 to The Empire Strikes Back as the second part of a planned trilogy. By sending the story and its relationships to such a dark place, the film elicits an enormous feeling of relief by its resolution. How To Train Your Dragon 2 remains a mostly sunny, well-crafted summer movie, but suggests that a small, potentially dangerous part of some animals may go untrained. Hiccup's dragon may be called Toothless, but he's definitely got teeth.
How To Train Your Dragon 2. 4 stars. Directed by Dean DeBlois. Stars Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett. Rated PG. Opens June 13. At area theaters.
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