Animation films are all too often written off as “children’s movies”, ones that are not worth the same visually and narratively as their live action partners. They are seen more as a form of entertainment than a form of expression, and are often trapped with basic narrative structures and character tropes in order to make them accessible to their primary audience. However, Dean DeBlois’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 attempts to somewhat break this mould, making the film less of a “kids’ movie” and more a moralist visual tapestry—with badass dragons.
DeBlois does this by challenging some of the ideas behind children’s animation: its male protagonist is physically disabled—with one leg--and effeminate; the female characters, although few and far between, are famed for their fighting skills and not for their cooking skills and main characters do die. Of course, it is still not a wholly modern piece of animation. There is only one black character, who happens to be the ‘baddie’, and one or two memorable female characters amongst the gigantic cast. If the characters don’t have an American accent, they’ll have either a Scottish or English one--but you can always count upon them having a proud American humour.
Admittedly, I was dragged to the cinema by my younger brothers to see it, but I do believe that DeBlois, knowing all too well the pains suffered by elders as they are forced to sit through witless and contrived films about talking inanimate objects, has created a film that appeals to all tastes. DeBlois’s position as writer and director of both this film and its predecessor grants the film a creative integrity that is not usually present in family films, and he presents it as an animation made with childlike imagination in order to inspire childlike imaginations. He manages to keep the nodding adults on board with a sly humour and, as aforementioned, by shaking up the traditional formulas a little bit. You still do find yourself correctly predicting what will happen next, and in this way it does appease convention, but at least the film looks pretty doing it.
And that’s the thing: the animation is glorious. The whole film is a flurry of rave colours and phantasmagorical shapes, as if someone took a child’s colouring book and gleefully tossed the pages into the air. In certain scenes, especially the ones involving the army of dragons (she says trying to sound serious), one can see the true mastery behind every frame, and it makes one consider the fact that someone has sat down and dedicated hours of their life to create those 72 frames in that few seconds of footage.
As for the film as a whole, there is no doubt that it’s a sequel, and DeBlois has no shame in displaying the film’s franchise nature in the rather moronic title (by sticking an out-of-place ‘2’ at the end of it). However, it is not a Planes 2: Fire and Rescue or a Rio 2; it is a sequel with heart, one that respects its predecessor and genuinely tries to emulate what made the first one so enjoyably care-free. It delves straight into the story, with few fussy expository embellishments, immersing the audience once again in this wonderfully Nordic diegesis of dragon riding and courageous exploring.
It is simple, Americanised and a little bit arrogant, but it’s fun, and it does challenge a few norms. Given its more-or-less guaranteed box office success because of the fact it’s a franchise, it could’ve taken more risks here and there, yet it remains close to its source material—Cressida Cowell’s novel--and attempts to be just as charming. Ultimately, considering I left the cinema wishing that I had a pet dragon, and having to buy my brothers Happy Meals just so that they could get toy dragons to play with, I think it’s fair to say that the film performed the job it was supposed to: to entertain. It is hard to judge it as a form of expression when it’s so tightly confined by its source material and a few expected plot turns, but the uniqueness and recognisability of the animation and clarity of DeBlois’s vision renders it one of the better animations—and whole franchises--out there.