By Jordan Smith, Hollywood Staff
For a long time, it was understood that Pixar was supper and DreamWorks was dessert. Pixar was the filling meal: animation that required serious digestion, with its meaty emotional beats and deep characters giving their work a texture that other animated films didn't have. It wasn't all eye-popping visuals and pop culture references thrown at the screen, but stories crafted with care. DreamWorks, on the other hand, was the after dinner treat: sweet, fun, but nothing to really chew on. But with How to Train your Dragon, things changed for the company. After all the Shreks, Madagascars, and other films, suddenly DreamWorks was finally serving up lobster.
And boy was it good. The first Dragon was a revelation for the studio. The flying sequences made a serious case for that pesky 3D surcharge, but at the film's beating heart was the tender relationship between a boy and his dragon, so resonant and fully realized. And now we have the sequel, living up to its predecessor almost entirely. For most of its running time, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a delicacy. It's just the final bites that aren't so smooth.
It's been five long years since we last saw the cliffs of Berk, and things have changed for the better. humans and dragons are living in blissful cohabitation. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is 20 years old, sporting some young adult scruff of the chin. His father Stoic (Gerald Butler) is grooming his heir as a successor to the throne, but Hiccup would rather pass his time in the clouds with Toothless, discovering parts of his world that were inaccessible before humans partnered up with dragons. His travels brush him up against Drago Bloodsport (with a name like that, he may be the bad guy) played by Djimon Hounsou (okay, definitely the bad guy), a man who wishes to build a dragon army... not to mention a mysterious dragon rider whose identity has been spoiled by the film's trailers but won't be here.
Berk and the surrounding domains of its pseudo-Nordic fantasy land are once again richly realized and provide a beautiful backdrop for the flying scenes, which are even more kinetic and grand than the original. The bond between Hiccup and Toothless is felt every second the duo zips through the air, giving the film's action scenes an extra oomph of feeling. Hiccup's budding relationship with this his father, who struggles to understand his son's dalliances in the sky, gives the film an emotional pulp that hasn't been seen in any animated effort this year.
It's almost perfect, but the film just doesn't earn that gold star in the end. So much of the power threaded through the film is cut short by its conclusion, proving that there's still blockbuster DNA wiggling around inside its cells: Hiccup's personal story gets lost in the mix as the film is relegated to an explosive and cliche final act with more dragons than heart. It almost feels like the film is straining to be something better and more nuanced, but can't fight its own animated genetics. Nature wins over nurture.
It's a pity, but a small one. Despite its disappointing finale, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so charming it's ultimately irresistible. The core relationships brim with poignancy, and it's a swashbuckling adventure through and through. It doesn't quite stick the landing, but the flight getting there is just so damned pretty.