Director: Dean DeBlois
Alright, Pixar studios, you can have your toys, and your fish, and your doe-eyed robots – but Dreamworks will always have their dragons.
Out of well-nigh nowhere, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon charmed everyone’s Viking hats off with its keen wit and handsome tracking shots of flame-breathing beasties gliding over cobalt seas and green-tufted crags. Promising that wholesome spirit seldom found in the many smirking, postmodern animated film franchises of today, the sequel to this swooping tale was a welcome prospect.
Four years on, writer/director Dean DeBlois’ second chapter has landed, bringing kids (and everyone else) the warmth of his original – if without the same sense of novelty. But this isn’t to say life in the village of Berk has remained unaltered during the five elapsed winters between the first and second films. A new dragon truce means wings, and wings mean broader horizons to explore. Jay Baruchel’s weedy hero Hiccup and scaly partner Toothless are no longer shunned by the once dragon-sceptic neighbourhood; now it’s a human-dragon commune with built-in fire extinguishers.
Of course, with broader horizons come bigger baddies, and even standardised fire safety won’t be enough to stop the dreaded and dreadlocked Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who’s out to build an army out of everyone’s pets. The villain’s complexity goes no deeper than his saying “Raaarrrgh” a lot – while similar may be said of swayable henchman Eret, voiced a little too stiffly by Englishman Kit Harrington.
Harrington’s Anglo accent adds yet another voice to the already distracting clash of Hiccup’s nasally-inflected US dialect and the Scottish boom of Gerard Butler (supposedly playing Hiccup’s dad, Stoick the Vast). And this doesn’t include the weird Irish/Swedish twang of newcomer Cate Blanchett as Valka, the enigmatic dragon whisperer. Despite her suspect spoken delivery, though, Blanchett’s introduction does prove to be a highlight after one stirring ice cave scene.
Elsewhere, the regular support of America Ferrera, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse contribute a good running joke about how sexy Eret the dragon-trapper is – but then not a lot else. It’s the ever-silent Toothless who’s really top dragon, engineered for optimum cuteness with his canine mannerisms. He’ll sell a few toys too, tooled up like a pen knife with retractable teeth, blue lights and an all-new evil mode.
Like Toothless’ growing gadget repertoire, the movie at large is jumbled. Flitting from grand kaiju-style “Alpha” dragon fight sequences, to potent family drama, then back to light slapstick, HTTYD2 overreaches into unchartered territory. Dreamworks may have earned their comparisons to Disney-Pixar, but storytelling snags need to be navigated before they can fully measure up. For now, here be flaws.