Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"How to Train Your Dragon 2": review

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a film directed by Dean DeBlois and starring the voice talents of super-nasal Jay Baruchel as the Viking-nerd protagonist Hiccup, America Ferrera as Hiccup's tough main lady Astrid, Gerard Butler as Hiccup's father (and village chieftain) Stoick the Vast, and Craig Ferguson as Stoick's wisecracking friend—and Hiccup's mentor—Gobber the Belch. Also along for the ride in this sequel to the 2010 hit are Cate Blanchett as—I suppose it's not a spoiler if the preview trailer gives this away—Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka; and Djimon Hounsou as the main villain, Drago Bludvist.

The sequel's story picks up five years after the events of the first movie: the village of Berk now lives in harmony with dragons, and dragon-riding has proved indispensable, especially for Hiccup, as a method for rapidly exploring and mapping out the surrounding world. As more land is charted, more dragon species are catalogued. Hiccup has been tapped by his father, Stoick, to become the next chieftain of Berk, a role that Hiccup is reluctant to assume, mainly because, as he confesses to Astrid, he doesn't yet know who he is. Hiccup and Astrid discover a group of people, dragon wranglers, who capture the beasts and bring them back to the mysterious and ominous Drago Bludvist, a man intent on raising a dragon army that will help him take over the world.

This sets up the basic conflict of worldviews in the film: Drago, who was mauled by a dragon years earlier, and who lost his family to the reptiles, browbeats his captured fire-breathers into submission and presses them into service whereas Hiccup befriends dragons and inspires their loyalty. It's the difference between demanding respect and commanding it. Hiccup also discovers that his mother has spent the last twenty years rescuing injured dragons and bringing them back to a special sanctuary created by a gargantuan, ice-breathing Alpha dragon, far vaster than the tribute-demanding beast that served as the "boss" monster in the first film. Forgiving Valka for having abandoned him when he was a baby, Hiccup begins to learn everything his mother can teach him about the secrets of dragons. Meanwhile, Drago Bludvist goes on the march, intent on destroying Berk and taking its dragons for himself.

As sequels go, "Dragon 2" succumbs at least partly to the temptation to rehash the first movie, but to do everything bigger and better. This is forgivable, however, because the plot of the second movie is substantially different and the new characters are interesting enough to overcome any repetitiveness. Hiccup and Astrid's romance isn't explored as deeply as I would have liked, but it's obvious they love each other, and that there's potential for this love to blossom and deepen in the third installment, which will be arriving soon enough. Comedy involving some of the minor characters provided some laugh-out-loud moments, especially when Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) gets the hots for super-muscular Eret (Kit Harington of "Game of Thrones" fame). The Korean audience I sat with laughed appreciatively at Ruffnut's amorous antics and at the goofy rivalry among Ruffnut's other suitors.

It's hard to see where the third movie can go in terms of spectacle. "Dragon 2" provides a larger-scale version of dragon-swarms than those seen in the first movie, and the enormous battle scenes, which rival Peter Jackson's steroid-freakish war choreography, will be hard to top next time around. The equally enormous Alpha dragons will be nearly impossible to surpass as well: a creature larger than an Alpha would exert its own gravitational pull.

If there's one thing for which I would reproach "Dragon 2," it would be for the introduction of a weapon that shamelessly evokes a lightsaber. The weapon doesn't actually get much use in the story, but every time it appears on screen, it commands the viewer's attention. I, for one, expected some flashes of lightsaber-ish derring-do, but was disappointed when no such stunts were forthcoming.

Still and all, "Dragon 2" was entertaining for its marvelous flight scenes, for the heartfelt way in which it treated the interaction among the reunited family members, for the originality of its plot, for the clarity and harmony of its themes, and for the movie's courage in sacrificing a main character or two in the service of the story. I'm not quite ready to say the sequel was better than the original, but at the very least it was a worthy successor. The movie also made plain that Gerard Butler and Djimon Hounsou have almost indistinguishable voices. The only way I could tell them apart was by Butler's Scottish accent.

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