CANNES -- Before the screening of "How To Train Your Dragon 2" started, there was a special trailer that was put together just for this event, celebrating 20 years of DreamWorks Animation bringing movies to Cannes to premiere.
What I found most impressive about it is how they managed to make even the films I really enjoyed from their studio look terrible by emphasizing the loud, the coarse, the most obvious of the jokes. It played more like a threat than a celebration, and it makes me wonder… is this what DreamWorks thinks works best with their films? Is this what they want every one of their movies to look like?
If so, the "How To Train Your Dragon" series must drive them crazy.
With this second film in the series, Dean DeBlois (who both wrote and directed the movie) has turned this into the most exciting overall property that DreamWorks has, live-action or animated. The film has an immediate confidence, and they don't spend much time trying to explain the first film. This is a sequel that has its own story to tell and that gets right down to it, and it expands on the ideas from the first film, but in a way that tells a thematically satisfying and complete story. In other words, this is how franchises are supposed to work.
The film's opening will most likely give J.K. Rowling a serious case of the sweats as we see the dragonriders of Berk playing a newly-invented sport that involves sheep, baskets, and airborne acrobatics that are truly dizzying. Only in animation could you ever really pull off a scene like that, and that's true of so much of this film, which is one of the reasons I really love these movies. If you're going to do an animated film, then do something that you can't duplicate in live-action. Take me someplace that could never exist. Put your camera someplace you could never shoot. Let your characters do things that no actor could physically duplicate. "How To Train Your Dragon 2" makes impressive use of the freedom of animation, both in terms of action and design.
Another virtue of these films is that they're not afraid of quiet moments. When we finally catch up with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless, they are enjoying a private flight together. You've seen bits of it in the trailers, but the scene as a whole is such a beautiful expression of the feeling of flight and the joy of being able to do this amazing thing. Their friendship has transformed their entire community, and it's become an example for everyone in Berk, including Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler), Hiccup's father.
In the "Kung-Fu Panda" series, DreamWorks took advantage of what seemed like an innocuous joke in the first film about a goose being the father of a panda to create a second film that dug deep into the feelings that come with being an adopted child or an adoptive parent, and I thought it was a really smart and beautiful way to deal with those ideas. Parenthood is a major theme in this second "Dragon" film as well, but in a different way. The questions of where our personalities come from and how we are the sum of two other people are raised here, and it's genuinely emotional to watch not only Hiccup's journey in this film, but the emotional arc for both his father and Valka (Cate Blanchett), his long-lost-and-presumed-dead mother.
Hiccup and Toothless have started exploring more of their world, mapping everything they find, and it is during one of their exploratory trips that they discover an entire culture based around dragons that they were previously unaware of. First they meet Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper who is tasked with gathering beasts for the dragon army of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Bludvist is completely different from the dragonriders of Berk. He sees them as terrible things that have to be subjugated and ruled by force, not as intelligent creatures who deserve to be treated well.
There's someone else gathering dragons, too, though, and when Hiccup finally discovers who that is, he is forced to make sense of something that seems impossible. The villagers of Berk find themselves dragged into a war they had no idea even existed, and along the way, they unlock some of the mysteries of the dragons themselves. There is an impressive sense of scale to the world in this film, and it is beautifully realized. These films are so gorgeous, just on a visual level, that it's almost surreal. Scene after scene, we're presented with these lush, dense visuals, and whether you're talking about the characters or the sets or the small details that flesh out the world, everything feels like it has been carefully designed for maximum visual impact. The production design by Rebecca Huntley is always working as another level of narrative, telling stories without words, suggesting that this is a place that has been lived in.
Parents should be aware that the film makes some heavy dramatic choices, and younger children may be upset by some of what happens. Hell, it upset me, but it's supposed to. The easy version of this film would leave you completely happy with the fate of every character, but that's not the film they're making here. There are consequences to every action, some of which no one could predict, and there are some brutal truths that Hiccup is forced to learn as he takes these final steps into adulthood.
Across the board, the voice cast is excellent here. Kristen Wiig's character Ruffnut has a very funny running thread concerning her place in a complicated love triangle, Djimon Hounsou does a fantastic job as the film's main villian, and Blanchett brings so much strength and tenderness to the role of Hiccup's mother. Jay Baruchel has done a great job here of suggesting how much Hiccup has grown in five years, while still playing some very honest insecurities, and America Ferrera is uber-charming as Astrid. There's a lovely scene where she is making fun of Hiccup that feels human and smartly observed, and it sets up just how much affection there is between the two of them. Gerard Butler is tremendous as Stoick, and he finds the right balance between gruff and heartfelt. Everyone feels like they have lived with the characters for a while now, and they do tremendous work.
When I spoke with DeBlois earlier today, he said that this was designed to be the center film in a trilogy, but unlike something like "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," where every single scene felt like a set-up for something that will happen in some other film, this movie tells a thematically focused story that actually has real weight to it. By the end of the film, characters have gone through some major changes, and we've learned a lot about the world they live in. I am particularly impressed by where they leave Hiccup and Toothless at the end of the film. So many film series twist themselves in knots to return everything to status quo by the end of a film, but not this one. They are radically different characters at the end of the film, stronger for everything they must do here, and while I welcome another film in the series as long as they can do something this strong, this would be a perfectly satisfactory ending if that's all they ever made.
i don't care if you're working in live-action or animation… if you are going to make franchise movies, please do me the favor of watching this and really paying attention to how well they pull it off, and how invisible the mechanics are. It simply feels like a well-told story with characters worth our time and attention, set in a world that is rich with possibility. Enough training dragons… this team should be in charge of training Hollywood.
"How To Train Your Dragon 2" opens June 13, 2014 in theaters everywhere.