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Every bit as gorgeous as the first movie.

How to Train Your Dragon came at a time when Dreamworks had a loooong way to go to close the gap with Pixar. Back then, Pixar was pretty much the only game in town. How to Train Your Dragon was the first American animated film to really challenge their reign, not just in terms of popularity (a much easier target) but in terms of artistry, quality, and substance. In fact, Dragon felt very much like a Pixar movie in its combination of the fantastic with a warm, human story enriching for both kids and adults.

Now comes How to Train Your Dragon 2 (I’ll refer to it henceforth as Dragon 2) and it too surprises by being another Dreamworks sequel that not only meets the quality of its predecessor pound for pound, but in many ways exceeds it. A few years ago, I was stunned and delighted by just how fucking good Kung Fu Panda 2 was, especially compared to its good-not-great predecessor. This time, I was ready for Dreamworks to again attempt to outdo themselves with an animation and story team that had actually made a great-just-great movie the first time around. All praise to Dean DeBlois, a fellow Canuck, for raising his script and the directing to a new level.

They pull it off here, in other words. Big time. It’s at least as well told a story, with just the same degree of care and attention paid to its ridiculous world. There’s a fine line to walk with this material, with the colorful and cartoonish characters set against a fairly realistic environment. In the world of How to Train Your Dragon, you can get cut and bleed. You can die or lose a limb. Your clothes are made of material that has substance. But the dragons are like something out of Dr. Zeuss and the world as fantastical as they come. One of the things that most exhilarates about these films is that the attention to a level of realism warrants visceral reactions to physical exploits especially (but not limited to) in the case of flight. The juxtaposition seems difficult to maintain, let alone create, but once you realize how well it works for these movies, it’s astonishing.HOW-TO-TRAIN-YOUR-DRAGON-2-Official-Trailer-12

Stoic is my favorite role of Butler’s.

Being a sequel, Dragon 2 goes back to some of the dynamics that drove the first film. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is again at odds with his father over expectations versus what Hiccup wants for himself. Five years have passed since Hiccup brought peace to Berk and environs, uniting both the Vikings and the Dragons in a symbiotic, harmonious relationship. In a time of peace, Stoic is preparing to lay down his helmet and let Hiccup assume the mantle of Chief.

This is more than just a title. Thematically, Dragon 2 is telling a subsequent chapter in a larger “coming of age” tale. One that is relevant to anyone, but especially young men. Stoic is asking Hiccup to rise up and be responsible, not only for himself and his own dreams, but for others. He’s asking Hiccup to be selfless, in other words, appealing to what is best and most precious in the traditional conceptions of masculinity. Some would question that, asking why this is required or valuable. I’d say that there’s enough representations and endorsements of toxic masculinity in contemporary fiction that it’s plain refreshing to have something that accepts the utility of gender norms while discarding the damaging baggage. In many ways, Dragon 2 is about that conflict for my gender. In many ways, it questions the relationship between various expectations and ideas associated with masculinity. how-to-train-your-dragon-2-trailer-07122013-112023

At the same time, it’s also the story of a heroic boy and his heroic dragon.

While Stoic is grooming Hiccup to replace him, Hiccup is preoccupied with exploration. With dragons, the Vikings can go further and see more than they ever have before. Hiccup is always looking over that next horizon, finding new lands and mapping them, always in search of more dragons. Along the way, he stumbles across a plot by a feared Viking to rule all dragons and thus the world.

Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou) is a terrifying man. He’s singular in vision and will. He represents the corruption of power, showing Hiccup and us an example of what a man can become if possessed of his own will to dominate. The first to stand in his path is a mysterious dragon rider who turns out to be Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s estranged mother who has become almost as much dragon as woman. The family dynamics drove How to Train Your Dragon just as they do here, only this time balancing Hiccup’s discovery of himself through his mother and father, rather than in opposition to them. He’s a little of both, it turns out.

Together, they try to stop Drago and save Berk and the dragons from tyranny. It’s a simple formula that yields a fairly epic story. The one flaw I’d point out, and it’s potentially minor, is that the focus on Hiccup and his parents leaves little room for character development for anyone else. Though they were similarly shallow characters in Dragon, Hiccup’s Viking peers don’t get near as much to do here. They’re always kind of around, but they’re never pivotal. Even Astrid (America Ferrara) ends up having more chemistry and weight in her friendship with Ellet son of Ellet (Kit Harrington) than she does with Hiccup. Well, with the exception of one beautiful little couple scene they get together. That scene actually gets young love right in a way that kids’ movies, particularly in the tradition of Disney or Pixar animation, never ever do.

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It’s sickening, adorable, familiar, and true all at the same time.

Getting back to the themes of the film for a while, I want to generate a bit more substance behind my claims about Dragon 2‘s gender politics. And make no mistake, it has gender politics. Rather than being about equality between the sexes, it does for masculinity what Brave does for femininity. It’s actually a wonderful counterpart to that film and, strangely enough, Noah. In some ways, Tubal-Cain and Drago are the same archetype, with Hiccup being stuck in the middle between the destructive, narcissistic selfish internalism occasionally encouraged in masculine self-image (and representation) and the better way, the way of the father, provider, protector, and selfless leader. It’s a bit of Great Man fallacy and it’s a bit of YA power fantasy, but it’s still presenting a portrait of masculinity that is not damaging to young men or boys. And that’s something. It’s unequivocal in its rejection of violence, fear, control over others, etc. It offers up a story about being a positive example, even if adversity doesn’t negotiate.

Unlike Ham in Noah, Hiccup’s conflict isn’t really about which kind of man he wants to be. He’s never tempted over to Drago’s side, not really. Instead, his conflict is about what to do about it. This makes a lot of difference. Hiccup sees himself as a peacekeeper. If he can change Berk and the dragons, why can’t he do it again? By centering his storyline on this conflict, the movie gains a layer of insight and substance. It is at once acknowledging its nature as a sequel (why not do the same thing all over again? tell the same story twice!) as well as the important lesson for all young people that sometimes the grown-ups are right. Sometimes realizing this is how you start to grow up yourself.

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There’s also that facing reflections of yourself, whatever their nature, can tell you a lot about you.

But what about the dragons in the fucking dragon movie, you ask me. Yes, the dragons. They are awesome. Especially the giant kaiju-like ones. The Bewilderbeasts. This movie plays with ideas of hierarchy, control, and dissent so cleverly that you almost miss how it reflects back to the core story and characters. Toothless and Hiccup have essentially the same arc. Both of them have to rise to the occasion and become adults, with adult responsibilities. Hiccup does this by accepting that idealism has to be tempered with responsibility and reason. Toothless does this by choosing the freedom and companionship of his life with humans over the domination of the larger, more powerful dragons. Neither can make these choices alone, which is why their story so nicely folds them into each other.

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It’s impossible not to love these two.

I care about this thematic and meta stuff. Not everybody does. I think it elevates this film into truly special heights, well worth long conversations about gender and positive/negative representation. I also think it’s a fantasy epic as good as any other, presenting us with great world-building, amazing visuals, and a stunning score. It’s a rousing, entertaining film. It’s got the laughs, the heart, and the action. What else can you want? It’s just nice when there’s also all this delicious narrative meat. I’m a narrative meat carnivore. A narrativore.

I’m not really sure if Dragon 2 will be thought of as better than the first one. It’s possible that it deserves that, objectively. But in terms of seeing the bar and raising it another notch, I’d give it that for sure. On a purely emotional, subjective, and personal level… I judge their relative quality by how close I get to tears when some stirring shit happens. In the first film, the bit where Hiccup and Toothless first succeed in flying together totally does it for me. The wonder, awe, and beauty of that sequence can still bring a tear to the eye or a chill to the spine. Dragon 2 has many, many scenes that accomplish the same or similar feelings, not only due to spectacle but due to genuine emotional intelligence and moving, somber scenes balanced against that spectacle.

These movies are fully formed things. They aren’t just excuses to design cartoon dragons that look like they’re just waiting to become toys. They aren’t just excuses to say “Pixar isn’t the only game in town”. That’s awesome if you ask me.

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