Five years on, and Hiccup (Baruchel) and Toothless are living in a Viking/dragon Utopia. But trouble looms when they learn of Drago Bludvist (Hounsou), who captures dragons to build his army. As Hiccup tries to find Drago and negotiate peace, he discovers a new, mysterious colony of dragons...
Historically, it is fair to say that DreamWorks Animation struggled to match the heart and soul of their Northern California rivals, Pixar. Their Antz cracked wiser than Pixar’s Bugs but didn’t pack the same emotional punch; Shrek, the studio’s MVP for near a decade, became mired in the same story over and over (Shrek longs for solitude; learns the value of family). Then came 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon, a soaring, exhilarating tale bereft of fart gags whose most compelling character never said a word and which boasted perhaps the greatest last act in recent memory. This sequel, again based extraordinarily loosely on Cressida Cowell’s books, confirms its suggestion that at least one team at DreamWorks can match Pixar tear for tear, and perhaps even outmatch them for excitement. Director Dean DeBlois set out to make the Empire Strikes Back of animated film — and may well have succeeded.
It’s unusual, in ostensibly children’s films, for time to be seen passing. While Andy may have grown older in Toy Story, his playthings didn’t age from one film to the next, and even when the animals of Ice Age married and reproduced they remained oddly changeless. But — and this will not come as a surprise to fans of spin-off TV show Dragons: Riders Of Berk — our young teens have grown to 20-odd, flying dragons of their own and facing adult careers while their parents’ generation begins to step back from leadership in their favour. Relationships that, when we left the first film, had barely begun are now old news, conveyed not through grand declarations of love but in small gestures of casual intimacy — notably between Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup and his tough girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara, a little underserved here). The story, too, begins to stretch its wings. So we learn more about the ways of dragons, and about the wide world beyond Berk. This sequel is also, as naturally as dragon follows fire, darker.
The result is a film not afraid to surprise and even challenge. While we open with the all-too familiar sight of a vacilliating hero, unsure whether to accept the responsibility of the chieftainship of his tribe and an end to his carefree youth, any such Hamlet-ing is soon sidelined. Instead, Hiccup must deal with a new threat, that of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who leads a dragon army and sends out hunters like Eret (Kit Harington) to capture new lizards for his crew. This inevitably brings him into conflict with Berk and its integrated community of man and dragon, and causes a rift at home when Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler), driven to uncharacteristic caution by the mere mention of Drago’s name, argues for a retreat to their home base while Hiccup, idealism fuelled by his triumphs last time, pushes for peace talks. Both approaches prove unequal to the task, and set up a devastating confrontation. This is a complexity we might not have expected: most children’s films see someone who is right simply being overlooked or ignored, rather than permitting the possibility that no-one has the right answer and events must unfold as they may.
Beyond Berk, there’s a wider ideological clash. The shadowy Drago seeks, like the Berk Vikings last time, to save the world from the dragon menace, but he does it by subjugating dragons to his will and not incidentally by dominating anyone who disagrees. His natural opponent is Cate Blanchett’s Valka, Hiccup’s long-lost mother who long ago went dragon-native, struggling to protect the firebreathers from humans. Again, the opposing sides are limited in their perspective, and it’s only when their factions clash that everyone’s beliefs will be tested.
Valka’s a somewhat sticky character: Hiccup’s so delighted to find her alive that the film skips the usual how-could-you? recriminations in favour of a tentative, delicately played family love story. It’s a quietly subversive choice, and one in keeping with Hiccup’s basic good nature, but it does leave Valka feeling a little underdeveloped. Still, the reunion of this family will leave a lump in the throat of all but the hardest-hearted, and demonstrate that you don’t need Idina Menzel’s pipes to provide a song worth singing.
But it’s not all heavy drama. There’s silly bickering from the other young dragon riders of Berk, who race their dragons around town to ease newcomers into the story and play a sort of polo with impassive sheep as the balls, but not enough of them to irritate. Craig Ferguson’s Gobber accompanies Chief Stoick almost everywhere he goes and provides a counter-point of wisecracks when things threaten to get too serious. And best of all are the dragon themselves, combining the best qualities of every pet you ever had. There’s a cat’s fickle whimsy, a dog’s joyous enthusiasm and protectiveness, and plumage more striking than the prettiest parrot.
Toothless in particular remains a miraculous creation, and it is a source of great cosmic injustice that every human on Earth doesn’t have one of their own. Puppyish and playful but formidable when called upon, he communicates more with a sigh or a lolled tongue than some actors manage in an entire career. Never quite anthropomorphised but always strangely comprehensible, he evolves here in unexpected ways. He is, in fact, at the heart of the film’s bleakest moments, as the bond between Hiccup and Toothless is tested in a truly upsetting manner. If a couple of other big emotional moments are slightly brushed aside to avoid visible violence and keep the focus on this twosome, it’s warranted: their struggle threatens to leave us on an even darker cliffhanger than Empire Strikes Back, and stretches Hiccup’s optimism to breaking point.
With Roger Deakins returning as consulting cinematographer, this all occurs against a backdrop of surpassing visual richness. It’s almost surreally beautiful at times: Hiccup and Toothless skim over the clouds, only for a strangely garbed warrior to rise through the mist, observe them for a moment and sink slowly back; later, two dragons meet and hover in a golden sky as they assess one another’s intentions, wings stirring up little eddies of cloud; a dragon the size of a cathedral stares gnomically at the tiny human in front of his nose.
It’s been clear throughout that DeBlois has a grand plan and big ambitions for his reptilian trilogy, and this story sets the scene for an even bigger, and potentially even more heartbreaking, third film. If it delivers on this scale, it could be the second great animated trilogy after Toy Story.
At times terrifying and too tough for tinies, this is nevertheless a triumphant sequel that puts its faith in Hiccup and Toothless to find a way through dark times for man and dragon. Until we all get our own dragon to go flying with, the result is a story sufficiently thrilling to have us all airborne.