Sunday, June 29, 2014

How To Improve Your Dragon

WARNING: As always, SPOILERS ahead!

If there's one thing I like about DreamWorks these days, it's their sequels… No joke, their sequels. Pushing aside the quality of most of their recent offerings, their sequels have been very impressive. I'm talking about their post-2010 sequels, because I'm not fond of the Shrek sequels and while I think the second Madagascar is decent, I feel it has its setbacks. The recent DreamWorks sequels/prequels/spin-offs/whatever have been pretty good in my eyes…

Kung Fu Panda 2 was a marked improvement over the original, with a bigger, darker story and more heart while still keeping the comedic spirit of the first film. Puss in Boots was a delightful prequel that was free of all the Shrek snark and pop culture reference garbage, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted was what the first two films should've been: Pure cartoony over-the-top fun, but with a surprisingly good story to support the mayhem.

So now here we are, How To Train Your Dragon 2. Another sequel that improves upon its predecessors flaws, and also… It's DreamWorks' best film to date.

You heard that right, DreamWorks' best film to date…

Director Dean DeBlois and crew continue the story of the first film in an epic manner, taking us to big locations outside of the island of Berk. An adventure-hungry Hiccup flies around with Toothless, discovering new lands while being faced with new responsibilities: Father Stoick wants him to become the next chief, something he is not sure he is ready for. Soon, Hiccup finds out about Drago Bludvist, a fearsome dragon hunter who is a major threat to Berk and dragons who later turns out to be a crazed individual who is actually building a dragon army to conquer the world. However, we don't get to meet this baddie just yet, which is good because that makes for a lot of build-up. The film goes another direction for a little while, a good direction…

Hiccup is reunited with his mother Valka, and soon an emotional core really starts to take shape. I found the characters from the first film to be a lot more interesting and likable in this film, especially Hiccup. Of course it takes place five years later, so he has changed. He's learned a lot, he's skilled, and to see him reunite with his mother who is a real dragon expert was great. It has a much stronger story than its predecessor, and it does keep a lot of the quiet moments that made the first one work so well while blowing you away with spectacular flight and action sequences.

Other elements from the first film are also improved. Hiccup and Astrid's relationship is a lot better in this film than it is in its predecessor. I felt in the first film that the love story stuff was just sort of tacked on, it was there for the sake of being there. I'm one of the rare folks out there who thought that human stuff in How To Train Your Dragon was okay at best, nothing spectacular. Everything with Hiccup and Toothless was stellar, I felt. All of the problems I had with the human sequences are fortunately - for the most part - gone in this film. Hiccup and his mother are such great characters, Astrid's a lot more likable, has more of a personality, and the other friends are actually a lot more fun as well - they were barely grating and delivered some comedy that works, too! There are a few moments where they tend to overstay their welcome, but it isn't too distracting. Everything has pretty much been upped!

In fact, a lot of the human-level scenes stuck out more than the set pieces, surprisingly enough! There's a moment where Stoick and Valka sing a song together, and then Gobber joins in, it's one of those heartfelt moments that just really, really works. It reminded me a lot of the kingdom dance sequence in Tangled, it's a part that just basically goes for the emotions and yet moves the story along quite well. At the same time, it gets you to really like these characters. Again, with the first one, I didn't really care that much for Stoick as a character alongside the others, but in this film I did care. All of the scenes with Stoick and Valka are the film's high points.

The action is of course bigger, the scope is larger and the stakes are higher. Drago Bludvist is perhaps one of my favorite DreamWorks villains, alongside the murderous Lord Shen from Kung Fu Panda 2. Villains, I felt, weren't one of DreamWorks' stronger areas - even in their current films. They've gradually gotten better, but Brudvist is memorable and badass. He's got cool abilities, is intimidating (his design is great and Djimon Hounsou's voice was a perfect fit) and actually does something pretty awful. Yes, this film actually takes some big risks…

The way they handled the death of Stoick was unexpected; Bludvist's massive dragon - called a Bewilderbeast, a rare gargantuan alpha-dragon that can control other dragons - manipulates Toothless into becoming a killer. The mind-controlled Night Fury is about to kill Hiccup, until Stoick takes the flame for him. Hiccup even briefly tells the frightened dragon, who quickly realizes what he had done after it all wears off, to go away! DreamWorks has been veering into darker territory lately, but this was quite a gutsy move on their part. Those parents who normally don't like family movies being a bit edgy are already moaning, but it's great to see studios making family movies like this. Ones that don't talk down to kids or even consider what may frighten one 3-year-old out of a million, it sticks to its guns.

One other thing that I loved about this film was how it further explored the series' mythology. It made the world and story all the more compelling, and I want to see even more of it. The designs of all the dragons are just wonderful, very creative and eye-catching. The Bewilderbeast alphas have some of the coolest designs I've ever seen for any creature on film, and every other dragon is just awesome. They're colorful, have different shapes and features… Animated dragons never looked so cool!

Even the locations are eye-popping, the color work and art direction is excellent. John Powell's score is great as expected, giving some scenes a real epic flare to them. In terms of the visuals and the look, it's stellar. I'm just very glad that a compelling story came with all of it, one that had some bite and a lot of emotion to boot. This is one of the great animated fantasy films, and I hope to see more like it in the future.

I'll say it again. I feel this is DreamWorks' best film to date… A fantastic fantasy epic with an engaging story packed with heart and action, a very likable cast of characters, lovely visuals, and an exciting massive scope.

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