In this second instalment of DreamWorks viking-dragon adventure, director Dean DeBlois manages to raise the stakes without losing what made the first outing so surprisingly good – a mature and well-structured script supported by exemplary technical contributions.
The film opens in back in the viking village of Berk. Dragons are now well and truly integrated into daily life, and our protagonist, (Jay Baruchel) has grown up somewhat along with his gaggle of unruly classmates. Now a young man, Hiccup is faced with taking over from his father Stoik (Gerard Butler) and becoming chief of the village – a responsibility he’s eager to avoid. He’s far more interested in exploring and charting their world with Toothless. But the world is much bigger and more dangerous than he imagined – he and now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) come across a host of dragon trappers, led by Eret (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington). They are working for the mysterious Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who is amassing a dragon army and coming their way. While Stoik wants to barricade the village and prepare to fight off Drago, Hiccup is certain he can convince Drago to change is mind about dragons – after all, that’s what the first film was all about. On the way, however, he discovers another dragon rider – his long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchette), who was carried off by dragons when he was a baby and has lived among them ever since. The family reunion is cut short when Astrid and friends are captured by Drago – controlling the alpha dragon, Drago forces all dragons to bow to his will. Hiccup has to fight for not only the vikings’ lives, but also the dragons’ freedom.
As with the first film, the technical qualities elevate this work above the usual class of animation. The sweeping score from John Powell is once again flawless, building on the musical themes established last time and working them in new, unexpected ways, expanding and developing with the world of the characters. Powell moves effortlessly between moments of tender revelation and heart-pounding action, using the full breadth of the orchestra at his disposal. The cinematography, if it can be called that, shows the mark of visual consultant Roger Deakins – the animation demonstrates a real appreciation for shadow and darkness, creating a believably nuanced world that complements the at-times unexpectedly grown-up narrative. In a high octane opening chase around Berk, the camera shudders with the flight of the dragons – a small touch, but one that makes all the difference, and shows how much animations can benefit from live action experience in their world-building.
The narrative is once again solid and engaging, managing for the most part to avoid the large amounts of catch-up exposition that sequels regularly get bogged down in, trusting the adults to figure it out and the kids to get caught up in the ride. The morals do come thick and fast, but never quite heavy-handed. At times the story lags, losing momentum in certain family-time scenes between Hiccup, Stoik and Valka that feel slow and clumsy compared to the well-paced whole. These are, however, ultimately necessary for the second-act shocker that will have most of the audience sniffling.
Some subplots feel awkward and overworked – a comic-relief narrative involving two of Hiccup’s classmates, Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) fighting for the favour of Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), is funny the first few times it appears but soon becomes tired and contrived. There are also plenty of Chekhov’s guns to be planted in the first two acts that are required for the final showdown, which could have benefited from a second pass for subtlety. You can and will forgive the filmmakers for these transgressions however – the emotional payoff is huge and satisfying for adults and children alike.
The filmmakers have also learnt to mine the dragons for all of the background comedy and cuteness they can get. In the first instalment, Toothless spent much of the first two acts wavering between friend and foe, or rather, friend and psychopath. This film sees Toothless and his fellow dragons regularly goofing around in the background of the scene, behaving like adorable scaly cats in material that will fuel tumblr gifs for months to come. For a film that gets surprisingly dark given its target audience, this ultimately works to lighten the mood, and shows an understanding of the depth of the frame from the filmmakers that has been largely lacking from animation up to this point. Balancing family-friendly cuteness with a genuinely moving plot and incredibly well-made world, DeBlois et al have produced one of the most satisfying animation sequels to date.