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Non-Review Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a staggeringly beautiful piece of work. Every frame of the movie is elegantly crafted and beautifully composited. It’s a wonderful example of how computer-generated animation is every bit as artistically valid as the classic hand-drawn style. The vistas are breathtaking, the choreography is stunning, the design work is elegant. It’s a wonderful piece of animation that is never anything less than visually amazing.

Structurally, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is well-constructed – perhaps a little too well-constructed. It’s a wonderful demonstration of just how fantastic the sequel structure established by The Empire Strikes Back can be when applied well. The sequel is meticulously put together, carefully and precisely calibrated to strike the right notes at the right time with the right intensity. As far as constructing a sequel goes, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is following some impressive blueprints.

There are moments when it feels like How To Train Your Dragon 2 adheres a little too rigidly to formula, but given how well it pays off, it’s easy enough to forgive.

Sky hopes...

Sky hopes…

It is worth reflecting on how The Empire Strikes Back formula works so well. Despite George Lucas’ after-the-fact protestations, Star Wars was originally envisaged as a stand-alone film with a rake of mythology behind it. After all, the film was a gamble, and there was no assurance that the studio would ever greenlight a sequel. As a result, the first Star Wars film is the most self-contained, which makes sense. Nobody knew just what it would spawn.

However, the studio was a bit more confident when it came to producing a sequel. So The Empire Strikes Back was a movie that had to go a bit bigger than Star Wars. It had to expand the world, increase the scale, push our heroes in different directions. It did a number of things rather well, and it’s telling just how influential The Empire Strikes Back has become for film makers trying to build a world out of their sequels.

No Hiccups along the way?

No Hiccups along the way?

There are lots of great examples of the formula at work – arguably X-Men II and The Dark Knight are the most recent successful illustrations. However, one can sense the influence on How To Train Your Dragon 2 in a number of ways. The most obvious is the way that How To Train Your Dragon 2 rather cleverly and meticulously builds the world out. The movie opens with Hiccup and Toothless actively building the world of How To Train Your Dragon 2 outwards.

Hiccup is building a map of the world outside his Viking Village in the way that RPG players explore dark terrain. His map in an endearing tapestry portraying strange new worlds, stitched together as Hiccup and Toothless discover them. Only later does Hiccup discover just how small his corner of the mythos actually is. The world is so much large than he had assumed it to be. There is much more than we saw in How To Train Your Dragon.

Mother of Dragons...

Mother of Dragons…

Again, the influence of The Empire Strikes Back is at play here. Just as Luke discovered the secrets of the Force by training with Yoda, so Hiccup and Toothless dig deeper into the dragon mythos with the assistance of a mysterious dragon-riding freedom fighter. This mysterious freedom fighter’s costume itself is a rather wonderful design, an illustration of just how fantastic the movie’s art department is.

Meanwhile, while Hiccup is learning more about the workings of the dragon lore, the plot splits off to follow various other characters. His friends wander into conflict with the big bad, providing us a glimpse at just what Hiccup will have to face. The stakes seem higher, the threat more overwhelming. Cleverly trying to keep its bad guy mysterious and distanced, How To Train Your Dragon 2 creates a sense of dread and fear.

Mapping a world...

Mapping a world…

The name “Drago” is repeated often in the film’s opening hour, but our glimpses of the villain himself are fleeting during the movie’s opening half. In a way, this creates a bit of a problem – by the time that Drago shows up, there isn’t time to develop him into a multi-faceted character. The fact that Drago doesn’t even get a particularly iconic design doesn’t help matters – he is eventually revealed as just a muscle-bound goon in a fireproof black cloak. Drago is probably the weakest element of the film, once he shows up.

To be fair, there is a certain elegance to the clash between Hiccup and Drago, despite the latter’s simplicity. The film’s conflict is framed in classic black-and-white terms. Drago provides a sinister counterpart to Hiccup, an older and embittered man who has taken a different path when it comes to engaging with the magical forces at work in the world. Hiccup fights for abstract concepts like freedom and self-determination, while Drago’s experiences have shaped him into a would-be dictator in a dark cloak.

Taking Toothless under his/her wing...

Taking Toothless under the wing…

All of this works remarkably well. After all, there is a reason why this structural template is so popular. It allows for world-building and exposition, while raising the stakes and building a sense of careful anticipation. It also avoids many of the traditional pitfalls of sequels, whether it is simply “do it all again” or the slightly more adventurous “do it all again, but invert some elements.” It is a staggeringly well put-together film.

However, the structure that provides most of the film’s strengths also accounts for its weaknesses. The plot beats feel, perhaps, a little too familiar. Hiccup discovers a secret about his parentage that provides an emotional hook into the story. A spineless lackey of the bad guy switches sides at a pivotal moment and – while not able to turn the tide single-handedly – proves an invaluable ally. The lore about “alpha” dragons provides a solid foundation for the story, but feels a tad contrived and heaped on.

A dragon never changes their fins...

A dragon never changes their fins…

Still, these aren’t major problems. They certainly don’t undercut the film’s strengths. The animation, whether of the human characters or of the dragons, is superb. The dragons are beautifully designed, able to eloquently convey emotion or mood without resort to speech or exposition. Toothless is an absolutely fantastic creation, the movements of the dragon skilfully evoking the loyalty and affection one might associate with a beloved household pet.

The production design of How To Train Your Dragon 2 favours crisp white or blue backdrops like sheets of ice or clouds, along with deep sea or soaring sky. This choice turns out to be quite inspired. It allows the more colourful elements of the film to come to the fore. The design of the mysterious dragon freedom fighter is more striking against these stark backdrops, as are the designs of the creatures themselves. The ice also creates a sense of a desolate landscape, feeding into the sense of heightened danger.

Up in the sky!

Up in the sky!

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a beautiful piece of film-making. It may stick a little too firmly to the sequel formula established in The Empire Strikes Back, but it hits all those notes with considerable charm.

2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on matangala and commented:
    Nice ride…cozy

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