The huge critical and commercial success of the awkwardly-titled Dreamworks animation How To Train Your Dragon was quite a surprise when it was released in 2010. Four years later, perhaps even more surprising is that its sequel is not a depressing, cynical cash-in, but a charming, well-made equal to the original.
Like its predecessor, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a visually stunning, beautifully animated film. Most impressive is the actual cinematography – a series of fantastic artworks (reminiscent of John Howe’s epic fantasy illustrations for The Lord of the Rings) can be seen in the end credits, giving insight into how much work has gone into making the film a spectacle, and it shows: it is unusual for an animated family adventure to be punctuated with so many arresting images.
The original was very strong musically, and its sequel delivers almost as well. While the main theme is a great song (and appropriately performed by Scandinavian Jónsi of Sigur Rós), it features pop vocals, which in the context of the film comes over a little cheesy and inconsistent with the pre-modern aesthetic. In fact, listening to this upbeat pop song as the boy and his magical friend soar high above the clouds is oddly reminiscent of another sequel: The Snowman and the Snowdog.
The story, full of twists and turns, is surprisingly effective and unforced, feeling like a natural continuation from the original tale. The characters are as fun as ever – if a little silly – and like the original, the dragons themselves are brilliantly realised: full of charm, wit and a healthy dose of imagination.
Unlike most family animations nowadays, Dragon 2 isn’t afraid to touch on darker themes and affect the audience on a deeper emotional level, and this pays off greatly, endowing the film with an emotional gravity which enables the audience to engage with and care about the characters. This paired with genuinely exhilarating action sequences, Dragon 2 deftly balances its comedic and dramatic elements, seldom letting one compromise the other: a strength on which the film builds from its predecessor.
The original certainly set the bar high, but despite lacking its freshness, How To Train Your Dragon 2 succeeds in maintaining this high standard, profiting from the technical wizardry and comedic sensibility of modern animations, while also benefiting from the emotional range and warmth which made the animated films of yore so rich and rewarding.