By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Avid How to Train Your Dragon fans following the animated television series Dragons: Riders / Defenders of Berk will find lots to love in its big-screen sequel to the first film.
This movie takes a few cues from the original film and television series to give a worthy product that exceeds the expectations of what a “next chapter” should entail. Instead of rehashing ideas, this movie continues forward with an all new narrative where Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) wants a better purpose in life. He wishes to expand what he knows of the archipelago frontier while everyone else seems happy at home in Berk. Both its citizens — humans and dragons — are content with living together. The dragons are now living in their forever home.
Even Gobber has his own Boulder class dragon, Grump, who helps stoke the fire of his forge so he can continue his work as a dentist for dragons. Thankfully, a fair bit of acknowledgement from the television series remains in the movies. Most of it carries hints of what’s to come in the film. That also applies to Gobber’s “coming out,” which has been subtly hinted at in the television series and shorts, “Legend of the Bone Knapper” and “Gift of the Night Fury”; his gaiety is stereotyped but it adds to the humour the series sometimes plays up.
But a more important detail is in what happened to Hiccup’s mother. Although the episode “Breakneck Bog” suggested she died, just how she passed on was never explained. The way Hiccup looked when talking about her is like that of someone in mourning. By the time the movie explains her disappearance, the “facts” Stoick told his son is moreorless what he believed to have happened.
Other key things to note includes how Hiccup has been prepared for becoming chieftain. “A Tale of Two Dragons,” “Terrible Twins,” and “Cast Out” shows that he is learning (sometimes the hard way) how to be an effective leader. Communication is key; trusting each other, even if the partner is full of himself (namely Snotlout in “Defiant One”), is essential for teammates to successfully settle disputes.
All these details provides an excellent bridge to subtly tell fans what’s next for Hiccup to deal with in the film. Throughout the series, the core story is essentially that of how to get father and son to relate. The first film showed a lot of heart in Hiccup establishing more than just familial bonds with the dragon he manages to down, but also in becoming a man who his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), can be proud of. With the second film, it goes a step further by showing how he rekindles his bond with his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett).
Although their reunion happens very quickly, this quibble can be forgiven when considering that this narrative has to fit into an average length film that a younger viewer can sit through. If it was any longer, not everyone will appreciate it.
When most of his Hiccup’s time is spent in a secluded wintery oasis, that’s when this film blossoms. The visual narrative feels like its been taken right out of a Hayao Miyazaki directed film. Valka’s full body armour is somewhat like the one Nausicaä wears. Her dragon, Cloud Jumper, is an owl-like dragon that takes its cues from My Neighbour Totoro. Together, they ride the wild wind with ease.
The way Valka behaves is nearly alien because of the time she has spent with the dragons. She’s become a Mother Teresa to the wounded dragons that’s come to this alcove to find a safe haven.
The myriad species that is to be found in this world away from human eyes is a bonanza and a merchandiser’s dream. As for how many of them will get turned to a product will depend on how far toy manufacturer Spin Master wants to invest into expanding their How to Train Your Dragon action-figure line.
But for fans looking for that epic narrative that made Cressida Cowell’s books the fun read that it is, this movie is closer to the novels than anybody may realize. This film has reached the point where in the books, Hiccup explains everybody has a dragon that they have bonded with. The Happy Holligan Tribe (the citizens of Berk) are now peacefully living with the dragons and they work together in a symbiotic relationship with the land. Finally, they can have fun by embarking in races by land, air or sea.
Even more importantly, there’s a brief scene that shows that the Archipelago is occupied by many other Viking tribes than just the few the TV series mentions. They meet in council once every few years. Stoick convened in a few during the televised series, but viewers are never treated to a look at what goes on there. In the film, the council they keep shows that producers have certainly done their research to keep Viking culture alive!
When Defenders of Berk finished its run, Alvin the Treacherous made peace with Stoick. To wonder who will be the next villain was one kept loosely undefined. In the film, Drago (Djimon Hounsou) shows that he is worse than Dagur, leader of the Berserker Tribe. To see this imposing figure certainly shows the character designers have hit a chord with redefining what imposing means. And Hounsou certainly delivers a performance that shows how nasty this new villain is. Maybe even the Kurgan from Highlander can be seen quivering in his boots.
This film soars in many ways that will leave most viewers emotionally satisfied. There’s some good drama that’s rarely seen for an animated product and although Fishlegs, Snotlout, Tuffnut and Ruffnut are pushed into supporting roles. They provide more comedy relief this time around than be well-defined characters. Astrid’s fire is not as prevelant anymore since she’s blossomed into a young lady, and thankfully her hell-bent attitude returns later in the film.
Hopefully more can be done to round out the rest of the characters when DreamWork’s next part of the saga, Dragons: Dragon Masters, goes into production. The big question is how many of the fans will be tuning in to Netflix to get their HTTYD fix? Hopefully after its first run, other networks can get a chance to pick it up. It’s not fair to limit viewership in a franchise that has become DreamWorks’ new flagship product.
Sadly, there will be an end. Producer/Writer/Director Dean DeBlois revealed that he wants to make a trilogy. Although the original novels spans 12 books with plenty of adventures for Hiccup, there is finality in this particular Viking saga. Hiccup is no doubt destined to become king. If the next season of the television series and third movie leads towards what Hiccup must face in the books, to bring the various Viking tribes together, perhaps he can bring peace to more than just his own village, but for the entire Archipelago too.
4 Stars out of 5