Silver Screen: How to Train Your Dragon II ***
There’s good news and bad news about How to Train Your Dragon II.
The bad news is that the movie never finds a suitable excuse for its own existence— outside of the hope of making an awful lot of money.
The first film, based on the characters from Cressida Cowell’s children’s book series, was a surprise hit. Yes, it did in fact make an awful lot of money, but it also distinguished itself with dazzling visuals and a genuinely affecting relationship between its pipsqueak hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless, the sleek black dragon he befriends and nurses back to health.
Hiccup is the son of Viking village leader Stoick, whose primary responsibility is hunting down dragons before they can cause any more casualties, as they did on the night Hiccup’s mother vanished. But Stoick’s conventionally unimpressive son believed that dragons were misunderstood, and by the end of the movie he’d forged a bond with his faithful, fantastical steed and convinced his fellow Vikings likewise.
The sequel begins with the village of Berk revolutionized. The entire town’s economy has shifted from war and dragon-killing to peaceful cohabitation with the scores of pet dragons who live amongst their owners like Flintstone appliances sans wacky one-liners. While on a surveying mission to work on an expanded map of their homeland, Hiccup discovers a plot by the tyrannical and unimaginatively named Drago to hypnotize all the dragons and transform them into an army. He rushes back to tell his friends, but is sidetracked by the appearance of a mysterious dragon-tending stranger who has a connection to Berk’s past.
As villains go, Drago falls somewhere between boring and borderline offensive. He’s a gravelly voiced, dimestore barbarian whose villainy is signified by his scarred face, coiled dreadlocks, and darker skintone. (Seriously, guys, you had to make the only non-white character a totally unredeemable madman and have him voiced by Djimon Hounsou? Maybe the third installment should be called How to Explain Racial Sensitivity to Your Dragon.) His one-note plot plays out so simplistically it seems better-suited to an episode of the half-hour TV cartoon spinoff Dragons: Riders of Berk. The remainder of the time is filled with a slow-moving subplot that features Cate Blanchett as the voice of a woman who tends to wounded and discarded dragons. Meanwhile, the movie never really finds anything to do with Hiccup’s girlfriend (America Ferrera) and his indistinguishable sidekicks (Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
That’s the bad news. The good news is twofold.
First, the movie isn’t titled How 2 Train Your Dragon, and for that I offer my sincerest thanks.
Second, it’s absolutely beautiful to behold. The original film had handsome, kinetic animation that lent much personality to Toothless and thrilling momentum to the flying sequences. The sequel ups the ante with even more grandeur in the scenes of aerial combat, absolutely justifying the extra couple of bucks spent on 3D glasses. The visual details in the design of the movie’s horde of dragons, each of which is individually stylized, are phenomenal. Toothless still sports the sharpest design, with his black-matte scales, expressive eyes, and frame like the prototype for an Italian sports car, but his winged companions come in all colors of the rainbow. Some lumber through the air like fire-breathing city busses, others flaunt multiple sets of wings, dual tails, and even an embattled pair of heads.
How to Train Your Dragon II might be a little slow and underbaked, but it’s never boring. Whenever the story lags, just sit back and enjoy the gorgeous aesthetic and top-notch computer animation. Plus, it’s got enough dragon action to fill fifty seasons of Game of Thrones.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.