I avoid most big budget animated films. I don’t do this because I dislike animation, on the contrary I absolutely adore animation, but sadly I find most big budget animated films to be predictable, safe and boring, like something that has been product tested to the point where nothing distinctive or original could possibly survive. Every once in a while something like “The Incredibles” (2004) comes along and blows my mind but those experiences are unfortunately pretty rare. For the last two years I’ve been working with indie animator Bill Plympton, a filmmaker determined to tell his stories his way and I’ve loved every minute of watching him bring his latest feature film “Cheatin'” to life. Bill loves watching animation and unlike me, he eagerly sees every animated film that gets made. When I recently overheard him discuss how much he enjoyed the first “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) I immediately took note. Then when the tidal wave of positive reviews for the sequel began pouring in I realized it was time to take a look at this franchise.
Last night I watched the first film and I was delighted. Some of the emotional beats were still a little cookie cutter as one expects from a kids movie, nonetheless I fell in love with the world that the story’s hero Hiccup and his dragon Toothless inhabit. I just got out of seeing the sequel and maybe I’m still a little elated and punchy from a good movie experience, but I have to say that the hype behind this movie is for real. Bigger, bolder and more ambitious than the first film, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is that rare kids movie that adults can enjoy without reservation. The movie features several sequences that are absolutely exhilarating. The filmmakers seem determined to flesh out this amazing world and they resist the temptation of phoning in the sequel with predictable generic plot twists. Most successful franchises have a pretty rigid status quo that studios are determined to maintain. That’s not the case here. Director Dean DeBlois, working from an adaptation of the fantasy series by Cressida Cowell, is unafraid to shake things up by allowing the cast of characters to age and evolve. As unbelievable as it might sound, skinny neurotic Jay Baruchel (who voices Hiccup) completely steps up to the plate and becomes a heroic leading man. His friendship with Toothless remains the heart of the movie and watching the two of them in action as they take on their enemies is just a blast to watch. By the time the movie drew to a close, I was completely invested emotionally and was feeling goosebumps on my arms and neck.
Some reviews are comparing this movie to “The Dark Knight” (2008). Let’s not get carried away. This is an excellent sequel and I’m crossing my fingers that more movies in this franchise are coming our way, but the one thing this movie lacks is a great villain. The character of Drago is without question the weakest part of the story and without a compelling villain, no adventure film is ever complete. That grievance aside, the rest of the movie is firing on all cylinders. For the time being, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” has restored some of my faith in family friendly entertainment and I’ll be rooting for this movie to exceed expectations at the box office this opening weekend.
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