Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a Perfect Cinematic Thrill Ride that Challenges the Medium

It has been almost a year (22 months to be exact) since an animated film last left me with an exhilaration and excitement. It has been awhile since a film has made me feel the joys and potential of what animation could be. This isn't to discredit the good films since (Wreck-It Ralph, The Wind Rises), but since ParaNorman, animation has been rather dour. No film has really impressed me and taken me on a whimsical journey. That is, until director Dean DeBlois released How to Train Your Dragon 2: the second film in a proposed trilogy based on the books by Cressida Cowell. Within the first five minutes, he reminds you the limitless potential of CGI animation with intricate scenery, wondrous flight sequences, and the breathtaking score from returning composer John Powell. It is a perfect family film exploring legacy and the impact of loyalty.

The story takes place five years after the first film with the town of Berk now having integration and acceptance for dragons. Along with helping on manual tasks, the dragons serve not only as pets, but friends who play games. Life seems harmonious for the city, except for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his father Stoick (Gerard Butler), who wants to eventually hand his son the kingdom. Along with conflicting thoughts on how to handle potential intruders, the story becomes a father-son struggle not only of understanding each other, but how their different approaches to peace can be achieved. 

Like all great sequels, the film expands the universe and gives us more mysticism to take in. From the opening minutes where Hiccup performs a form of skydiving, the animation takes centerfold with the vantage point always being at an opportune angle. The film doesn't use its animation as a limitation, but instead uses it as a chance to expand on long takes and capture illustrious, highly compacted scenery while providing an epic feel. Not since The Adventures of Tintin has an animated film managed to flow so cinematically and create a sense of ecstasy simply by not cutting the shot. The film understands its action and creates a rush. Even the attention to background detail, including many scenes of playful dragons, has an unparalleled sense of a master crafting something unique and fully realized.

The rest of the story manages to match and at times surpass the breathtaking scale of its medium. The story sees Hiccup coming to terms with becoming the next leader of Berk while disagreeing with his father. Along with the more prominently featured supporting cast of comic follies, the story dives deep into emotional expansion, allowing Hiccup's family to become more central and important. From there, histories are explored and major events happen that will leave many crushed. The one benefit of the film is that it takes chances with its beats, always treating the audience as responsible viewers. There are actual stakes and while it does make for an occasionally darker family film, it knows how to run the gamut and give us a package of powerful moments. Simply by taking chances, the film's audacity becomes stronger and compensates for occasionally really silly jokes.

The film is a powerful example of what an animated film could be. It doesn't so much provide visuals and tell a story capable of being told in live action medium. It creates animation that feels more elaborate and important with every pixel holding significance. Many scenes, thanks to visual consultant Roger Deakins, are gorgeously animated and make this feel like a beautiful, important film. Where films like Frozen attempt to use animation for cutesy character designs, How to Train Your Dragon 2 actually puts meaning into them. It challenges every other CGI film this year to look this good and have as much emotional resonance. It seems doubtful because Dreamworks Animation has yet again made another masterful film about dragons. Even if their overall record is spottier than Pixar, it does seem like they have usurped them for good with this film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great sequel with a strong debate for being better or on par with the original (time will tell). However, in a time where animation has progressed to CGI techniques, few films have embraced it as well as Dreamworks, using it as opportunity to make films full of life and adventure. It will leave you in awe as it commands your attention. It'll make you laugh, cry, and drop your jaw in awe. It is the perfect family film as much as it is one of the few great animated sequels. The scale may have risen, but that is only to have more scenery and story to admire. For that reason and much more, this film manages to feel like something greater in cinema.

If my plot synopsis seemed vague, please understand that I have read numerous accounts of people being annoyed of the trailers "giving away too much." While I feel like this is untrue in terms of important plot beats, I wanted to respect those opinions by not diving into specificity. The truth is that even knowing what they are, the film is an amazing achievement of awe that stuck with me. Not since Gravity (and even then, more-so) have I been so overpowered with adrenaline and joy watching a film. This is a spectacle that even my consistent hyping the past week about How to Train Your Dragon 2 leading the Best Animated Film race feels to have undermined. I didn't expect it to be this good.

With that said, the category doesn't have a lot of sequel winners. In a strange twist of fate, when the initial film was nominated, it lost to Toy Story 3. Along with Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, there isn't a sequel that has won the category. It is a rarity of sorts, even if many of them have been nominated. I feel like things could easily change this year not only because Pixar is absent, but because this film packs all of the punches. Yes, it does seem to be off to a strange start at the box office (opening #2 to 22 Jump Street), but I do feel like the acclaim will keep this film alive. If anything, it would be offensive if this film missed the cut yet The LEGO Movie made it. 

I can't see the Academy ignoring it not only because it matches the appeal of the first one, but because of how cinematic it actually is. The film may have some kooky jokes for the kids, but it also has adventure and romance. It plays like traditional animation in a new platform. The Academy has done well in recognizing diversity in this category, and I feel like this is going to be hard to ignore. Few films have come out yet that feel as demanding for the category as this one.

The only other question to ask is if How to Train Your Dragon 2 is going to be Best Picture worthy. This is yet another rarity with animated films, with only Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story 3, and Up being nominated in the category. I would like to think that this film could, but I have to see what other titles will be competing for the title. I will likely revisit this argument when things become clearer. For the time being, we're looking almost at a guaranteed lock for a win in Best Animated Film. If it doesn't, then maybe The Boxtrolls is going to be more amazing than I'd expect. I have trouble seeing anyone who can't at least appreciate the audacity of this film, and that alone should be enough weight for it to get nominated.

Is How to Train Your Dragon 2 a lock for Best Animated Film? What is its biggest competitor? Is it capable of getting into the Best Animated Film race?

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