Sunday, July 6, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Alternate Title:  How to Make More Money

One sentence synopsis:    Hiccup and Toothless must stop a megalomaniacal warlord from destroying Burk and enslaving its dragons.

Things Havoc liked:  It was, in retrospect, inevitable that Pixar's run of amazing films would eventually come to an end. No studio, not Pixar, not Disney, not even Marvel can keep up the quality level forever. And yet what annoyed me about Pixar's decline over the last few years wasn't that they simply didn't keep to their high standards with disappointing films like Brave, but because having had a slip up, they decided to switch over to nothing but sequels of low quality and high marketability. I can think of no other reason why movies like Cars 2, Planes, and Monsters University came to exist. Yet as Pixar has slipped, it has provided an opportunity for their earstwhile rivals to shine, be they parent company Disney with Frozen (their best movie since Lion King), or their Speilbergian arch-rivals Dreamworks. And how better to showcase their talent with a highly marketable sequel?

... wait.

I kid. How to Train Your Dragon 2, a film I initially had made no plans on seeing due to a couple of fairly poor trailers, is not a sequel conceived of solely to sell toys, but a sequel conceived of for the much more acceptable reason of desiring to make vast amounts of money by replicating the success of a previous critical and box office smash. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was just such a smash, of course, a massive, sprawling animated adventure flick in the best traditions of its predecessors, a movie kids adored, and I respected a great deal. It had world-class animation, wonderful art design, excellent voice-work, a beautiful score, superb writing, and wicked timing, and without giving the game away too early, the sequel has all six of the above in spades, so how bad do you really think it can be? Flight sequences, though perhaps not quite as groundbreaking as the last time round (the first film was the only movie I've ever seen to out-do Avatar in 3D) are still breathtaking exercises in joyous freedom, complete with (I'm assured of this by my local ornithologist) proper physical movement and wing construction to lend the entire thing an air of verisimilitude. The animation is gorgeous and varied, from bright, colorful sequences of adventure and battle, to burnt forests and somber funerals. The original film's art style was what I called "detailed caricature" and it remains intact for this film, alternating incredible texture and depth with broad-canvas splashes of deep-field color. The dragons themselves remain as adorable as ever, their behavior some absurd mishmash of cats and dogs sized upwards for gigantic lizards, and the film's habit of placing their antics in the background of every scene, regardless of content, makes for all manner of hillarity. The score, by returning composer John Powell, is more of the first movie's, with period and region-appropriate instruments turning out a Disney-style orchestral overture, studded with actual songs at proper moments.  All of this is supported by a top-tier voice cast, mostly returned from the first movie, with standouts being Jay Baruchel (whom I last saw in last year's This is the End), and Gerard Butler, (who for once is using an accent that's appropriate). New additions include Kate Blanchett, doing a spot-perfect Emma Thompson impression (seriously, I thought it was Thompson) as Hiccup's mother Valka, and Djimon Hounsou, of Amistad and Gladiator, as raving psychotic Drago Bludvist.

Animated sequels have a bad reputation for a number of reasons, and one is that such films (especially anything Disney) tend to be nothing but the same film done over again, either with the children of the original cast or some contrivance to force things back to square one. As such I was surprised that for this one, the filmmakers decided to skip the lessons of the last movie entirely and set us on a new path. Five years have passed since the previous movie, and vikings and dragons are now fully integrated together, with viking warriors sailing into battle on the backs of assorted flying lizards. Far from being the outcast nerd of the previous film, only grudgingly listened to by his father and ignored by the macho warrior vikings, Hiccup (Baruchel) commences this film as something of a village hero, the prospective successor to his father Stoick the Vast (Butler), whose words are given weight by those around him and who has been given license to indulge in his love of contraptions and inventions, including several actually inventive designs (it's hard to go wrong with a flaming sword). Rather than having to relearn the same lessons as the last movie and once more embark on proving his worth to the community at large, this film deals with Hiccup's actual limits, be they of his ideals or of his ability to improvise his way out of bad scrapes. As in Brave, I do occasionally find it refreshing in a film when a hotheaded young protagonist defies all convention and goes off on his own to set things right only to discover that the conventions in question existed for a reason, and while this movie certainly isn't about the death of ambition or anything so weighty, it does recognize that hopes and dreams are not always enough in the face of determined, fanatical violence. But what struck me the most was simply that the characters have been permitted to grow, to age even, up from teenagers to young adults for the majority of the cast, and their behavior to change to match. There's a tad bit less awkwardness, a bit more maturity even to the absurd adventuring, just hints of alterations from the last time, all without falling into the trap of sitting down and explaining to the audience just why people are acting differently. Even Stoick, the villain (sort of) of the last film, has been permitted permanent change, and one of the better character moments of the entire affair is a sequence halfway through when, confronted with an earth-shattering revelation, the entire cast waits for him to explode with viking outrage, only for him to do nothing of the sort.

Things Havoc disliked: It's a kids' film guys, you have to accept certain things as given. One of these things is that the climax is going to be a bit rushed, as kids do not have the patience for lingering on dark and dour cruelties for as long as us jaded adults do. I don't mind, really, as I think some movies (the Batman films for instance) go way too far to the other direction, but it's true that things get awful convenient by the end when it comes time to claw back from the inevitable nadir to the inevitable triumph. This was true of Frozen and it's true of this film as well, so perhaps it's just an element of the genre.

What is not an element of the genre though is an unfocused script, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (god that title is long) has one, while its predecessor did not. Part of the problem is that the plot is more central to this film than it was to the last one. The first film had a plot, of sorts, but the plot was really kept in the background, as the focus of the film was Hiccup and Toothless (and to an extent Astrid), which allowed the movie to focus quite closely on these characters and their relationship as it evolved. I understand changing that this time, as said relationship has been established, but the problem really is that those elements brought in to replace that laser-like focus are not, by themselves, that compelling. Characters such as Velka (Blanchett) are the occasion for several striking images and set-pieces, but don't actually have a lot to do with anything, nor are their relationships with our main characters explored all that much. A similar problem bedevils Eret, played by Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington, who, and I hope you'll forgive me, knows nothing, particularly not what his role in the film is supposed to be. Yes, the movie does play around a bit with his "stern brooding young badass" archetype, mostly by turning him into eye candy for the female supporting cast (why not), but nobody, probably not even the little kids whom this film is intended for, can possibly fail to realize what his character arc is likely to be within minutes of encountering him, nor is that obligatory character arc actually important insofar as the film goes. Not every character in every film needs to be plot-critical of course, but there has to be some reason to have them in it, and the reasoning for several of these additions is specious to the point of invisibility. They're not bad characters, nor are they badly voiced or animated, nor do they interact badly with the rest of the cast. But they just seem to... sit there. And every moment the movie spends with them is a moment they're not spending with the characters we came here to see.

Final thoughts:  I don't want to make this sound like a bigger problem than it is, because the base fact is that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent film, funny, high-tempo, well-written, and gorgeous to look upon and hear. Is it as good as its predecessor? No, but then what sequel ever is (besides Godfather and Hunger Games and Hobbit and Captain America and oh shut up!)? The original film was a masterpiece, and if this movie is slightly off the mark insofar as those things go, it's not the end of the world, nor is it a reason to skip a film that is, in almost every way, a superbly-crafted animated piece. With Pixar having fallen off the wagon, it's good to see the other players in the realm of animation stepping in to compensate, but then that should be no surprise, as the nature of major American film, irrespective of genre, has always been thus. If Pixar returns to the superb-quality work that they were famous for even three or four years ago, then so much the better. And if not, there is always someone else. One studio falls. Another steps forth and takes its place.

Such is Hollywood.

Final Score:  8/10

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