Monday 28 January 2019

From the archive: "How to Train Your Dragon 2"

DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon, a 2010 adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s books about a Viking community making peace with the fire-breathers in their midst, was one of all too few recent digimations to use 3D not as an extortion tactic but a constructive aesthetic choice. 

Stereoscopy there wasn’t just a means to enable the viewer to soar alongside dragons in flight; it could also immerse us in the busy life of a small village perched precariously on the very edge of a rocky outcrop, and chart the tentative approach of a socially awkward outsider to a sleekly feline foundling – it was as much courtship as spectacle, which is why it won as many hearts, young and old, as it did.

For How to Train Your Dragon 2, again written and directed by Dean DeBlois, the stakes have been raised, the scale expanded. Time has visibly passed, too: Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the original’s nerdy hero, has grown into an adventurous, battle-scarred young man on the verge of taking over chieftain duties from his imposing father (Gerard Butler). This at a time when a rival chieftain has started to raise a dragon army; where dad’s first response is to lock his community down and prepare for war, his son wonders whether conflict has to be inevitable.

The software updates of the past four years have only enhanced this already detailed world: there are now a gazillion dragons flapping around us, each with their own distinct look and personality, and the characters now appear more photorealistic yet in their range of expressions. It’s significant that this behind-the-scenes tinkering should have gone towards better calibrated emotional responses, as the bridging of personal space again informs the storytelling.

A key subplot follows Hiccup’s attempts to reconnect with his estranged mother (Cate Blanchett, with roaming Celts accent), who we learn had rather more impact on the boy’s character than his galumphing father, and found herself equally alienated by the prevailing patriarchy. (As in the recent Edge of Tomorrow, this world’s most destructive avatars are explicitly referred to as “Alphas”: perhaps Hollywood is wising up to something about their audience make-up.)

Some aspects of this conflict now feel fresher than others – the numerous dragon fly-bys start to blur into one – but DeBlois marshals his story space such that this, at least, never gets monotonous. While meeting all the requisite quotas for swooping and fighting, he’s careful to make room for, say, the love song by which the chieftain hopes to win back his wife – a sob-inducing interlude that cuts through any clutter, and should hold even younger popcorn-rustlers under its tender spell.

The trailers beforehand (Planes 2, anyone? The Nut Job?) should serve as ominous notice there will be a lot of animated dreck and filler in cinemas between now and September, but How To Train Your Dragon 2, fresh from its premiere at Cannes, finds an appreciable balance between art and commerce: it deserves to burn up all the pocket money it surely will.

(MovieMail, July 2014)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is available on DVD through DreamWorks; a third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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