Monday, June 23, 2014

On How to Train Your Dragon 2

In the spring of 2010, I was but a wee High School Senior, ready to graduate and take on the world. Being the poor bastard that I was, my best friend and I couldn't afford our Senior Prom. We improvised: we cooked dinner, took our girls to the park, danced in the desert, and then went to a movie. The movie we saw? How to Train Your Dragon, and it was fantastic. I especially fell in love with it once I noticed, during the course of the movie, that everyone was staring at me. When I asked what they were looking at my best friend smiled smugly and said, "We're staring at you ... Hiccup." 

I guffawed. "I'm not Hiccup!" at which point Hiccup got smacked in the face by a tree and I shut up. 

I was forever after Hiccup.

So when I came back into Vegas for summer break, a certain group of friends wrangled me into seeing a certain movie. 

Most Idiotic Review
" ... this was not a sequel that anybody needed, outside of the accountants. And there's another already planned." 
— Stephen Whitty, (New Jersey Local News)

I feel a little remiss to attack a local news source, but lesbi-honest, this movie, not exactly racking up negative reviews, and rightly so. In his article, (titled 'The sequel that fell to earth') he concludes with a flat out falsehood. Of any franchises getting sequels, Dragon is perhaps one of the few that inherently excited me in and of itself. X-Men was only exciting because Brian Singer was returning to direct. Godzilla was a character that's always been a part of my family. The Marvel films are seriously hit-or-miss. But Dragon never worried me, and if the response on my facebook alone has been any indication, Mr. Whitty is sorely detached from this film's target demographic ... which, judging from the aforementioned response, are living beings with a pulse. 

Most Accurate Review

"The pressures to make a giant four-quadrant monstrosity must be enormous, and yet, like his unflappable hero Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon 2 writer-director Dean DeBlois has prevailed, serving up DreamWorks Animation’s strongest sequel yet — one that breathes fresh fire into the franchise, instead of merely rehashing the original. Braver than Brave, more fun than Frozen, and more emotionally satisfying than so many of its live-action counterparts, Dragon delivers."
— Peter Debruge (Variety) 

This was also hard to choose, as there's no shortage of praise for this film, but I think Mr. Debruge really hits the nail on the head, if only for his reference to both a Disney movie and a Pixar movie (which are still technically two different things) that I agree, Dragon is better than both.

The plot of the film picks up five years after the original left off, and our lovable vikings have changed with the times. Obviously this requires a new threat, and the film deals us Drago, a man who really does just want, "to watch the world burn," and like another, honestly more likable madman, he too has his own set of scars. 

The thing that pleasantly surprised me about this sequel is that it really does feel like a continuation more than a retread. This is a brand new story, and in many ways, a darker, richer, and more emotional one. The catharsis on this movie was brutal. They took all the love you'd developed over the course of the first film and used it to strangle you to near unconsciousness ... but in a nice way. 

The comparisons to Empire Strikes Back? Well justified for this second installment. 

Something was done in this film that I can honestly say I, at least, have never seen in an animated film before. The characters have aged. Hiccup and company went from being snot-nosed 15 year olds to snot-nosed 20 year olds (seriously, we never grow out of having snot in our noses. It's a biological thing). It adds a bit of that Harry Potter flair that grounds a pretty fantastical story in some pretty real territory. 

As I mentioned previously, this really does feel like the next stage in a journey, and part of what I found so impressive is, it's still securely Hiccup and Toothless' story, and frankly, I wasn't sure when the sequel was announced where else they could take the characters. On top of that though, unlike other mega-trilogies (Pirates of the Caribbean comes to mind) they didn't hold anything back. 

Dragon 2 is securely a standalone film with its own definite beginning, middle, and end. The story is open for more, but it's not ending on a damnable cliffhanger. 

Like it's predecessor, Dragon plays into ideas of family and responsibility pretty heavily, and that's where a lot of the emotional resonance comes into action. It doesn't avert or distract from it's own themes, nor does it brow-beat the audience with a particular message. It allows the themes to be carried by the characters first and foremost. Honestly, if someone ever asks me for an example of solid story-structure, this'll be on the top of my list. 

It's been years since I regretted not seeing a movie in 3D, seriously, but after seeing Dragon? I can only say that I'm pretty sure the ticket for IMAX 3D would have been worth it. I haven't said that since ... hell, probably the first one. 

The Dragon scenes are spectacular. I was happily bouncing in my seat one moment and then wringing my hands the next. The film works hard to balance its darker tone with the same sense of awe and wonder from the first film, and to my money, they succeeded. This film had some of the best visuals I've ever seen in a film. It really is a stand-apart feature. 

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