Of Dragon Training Sequels

So I finally got around to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 this week. I’d enjoyed the first one well enough, but it didn’t stick out as something with a must see follow up. Figured, eh, it’s just another sequel.

I was wrong.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably one of the most important modern animated films. It deserves this title for the reasons you’d expect: beautiful animation and technical brilliance along with a great story; but there are aspects that allow it, like Up before it, to really elevate the animated film.

But let’s talk about the animation for a moment. Simply put, the film is freaking gorgeous. Without a doubt, Dreamworks has finally given Pixar a run for their money. Details. Details like wisps of cloud or individual scales on Toothless give the movie a sense of being larger than life and yet still realistic. It’s amazing, and the quality of that alone makes it worth watching.

Fortunately, the animation isn’t everything. Dragon 2, unlike many other sequels — animated or not — has grown up. To an extent, literally: Hiccup and the other characters are five years older. Stoick is showing gray hairs, Hiccup’s taller; time has passed. This time gap is important. It’s easy for something animated to keep its characters the same age (See Ash Ketchum, who’s been 10 since I was barely seven). After all, it gives it a timeless feel. Going back to Pokémon, it means the show could continue for sixteen years with kids who weren’t even born when it came out able to latch on as if it was theirs. This does mean that characters remain stagnant, which is what Dragon didn’t do. Instead, it went the route of The Empire Strikes Back.

Now Empire is one of the greatest sequels, and also probably the best Star Wars movie. It earns it through several ways. For once it, unlike many sequels that have come in its wake, does not repeat the events of the first movie. Instead, it serves as an addition to the saga, a second episode (or fifth). With it, it takes the characters past where they started: Han’s showing signs of warming to the Rebellion, Luke trains to be a Jedi. Dragon also pushes forward in its plotting: there’s a psychotic warlord to deal with and it’s time for them to learn more about dragons. The same things don’t happen again.

For example, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid. A simple subplot would be to add tension to the relationship established in the first film. Shrek 2 did it to great effect, others less well like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Princess Diaries sequel ditched the original love interest so there could be a new romantic subplot. It adds drama, so, y’know, why not? Instead, Astrid and Hiccup are untouched in Dragon; there’s no backsliding character development. They’re a couple, and it’s not big deal. Stoick calls Astrid his future daughter-in-law, the pair are seen cuddling and the occasional kiss on the cheek is seen as no big deal. It’s sweet, and it’s also refreshing to see a couple that’s simply understood as being a couple.

Refreshing too is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Astrid’s plot doesn’t revolve around Hiccup. Rather she plays Han Solo to Hiccup’s Luke (to continue the Empire comparison), embarking on her own quest in Hiccup’s absence. Ruffnut, meanwhile has several lingering ogling of a male character which, besides showing off Dreamworks’ impressive animation of rippling muscle, provides examples of the ever elusive female gaze. It’s played for laughs, of course, but that fact that it’s even there is worth mentioning. Valka too is a great character — period. She’s someone who’s spent twenty years out of contact with society. Now, it could be easy to make her a one-dimensional half-feral person, but instead the film takes aspects of that an wraps it into a more complete whole. She’s cool and wonderfully layered. Point is, female characters in this movie don’t get sidelined.

But what stood out the most to me was Dragon 2’s sense of scale. It went big, reaching settings and scenarios that were epic of The Lord of the Rings variety. Its sweeping moments give the film a grandeur just about never found in animation. The human drama is never lost within it, though. Whether it’s Hiccup’s bond with Toothless or a certain parental reunion, the movie keeps has emotion to spare. It also helps keep the fantastical and epic elements anchored.

There’s a gorgeous scene early on where Hiccup and Toothless are flying above their clouds as a Jónsi song plays. The animation and scale of it is breathtaking, but it, along with the dialogue and sound, everything mise en scène, all serves to establish first the relationship between rider and dragon, but also where and how they stand now. It’s beautiful, and one that sums up how well rounded the film is.

I know my reaction is late, but I say this wholeheartedly: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a phenomenal movie, animated or not, and, once again, easily on the most important animated films of recent memory.

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