It comes as no surprise that How to Train Your Dragon 2 serves up full-throttle thrills and eye-popping imagery, precisely the kind of grand, old-fashioned entertainment studio tentpoles titles often promise but all too seldom deliver. What’s truly astonishing, in the best possible way, is that DreamWorks Animation’s follow-up to their rousing 2010 airborne Viking adventure is also an emotional powerhouse, possessing a depth of feeling its predecessor only hinted at. Its larger scope is tempered by a deeply felt intimacy.
It takes some time to realize just how ambitious an undertaking this is for writer-director Dean DeBlois, who is working without frequent collaborator Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, the first How to Train Your Dragon) this time around. The film takes us back to the island of Berk, where its inhabitants are now living in harmony with the scaly beasts that used to make their lives miserable. Five years have passed since gawky, enterprising Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel) made such a massive paradigm shift possible – dragons are our friends, not our enemies – over the objections of his dad, village chieftain Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). The burly ruler’s long auburn beard is graying, and he reminds his son that someday it will be his turn to lead, a position for which the now 20-year-old dragon rider does not feel the slightest vocation.
Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup’s kick-ass girlfriend, puts him on the spot about his hesitation, and the young couple’s lived-in rapport feels just right. What Hiccup does want is to keep exploring, to discover the lands that lie beyond the horizon … alongside Toothless, of course. The ebony-scaled fire-breather, who bonded with Hiccup Black Stallion-style in Part 1, remains a marvel of animation: sleek, playful and far more expressive without uttering a single line of dialogue than most characters, live-action or digitally rendered, at the movies this summer. In other words, Hiccup has a talent for world-making, as evidenced by a map he’s working on, and it’s something that DeBlois shares with his protagonist.
Using 3D to visceral, though never show-offy, effect, DeBlois follows his intrepid characters, taken from the pages of British author Cressida Cowell’s book series, as they come face to face with a cocky dragon trapper named Eret (Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington), a mentally unstable conqueror named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), and a masked vigilante with an unusual affinity for understanding dragons. Discovering the latter character’s identity is one of the joys of viewing this film, and it’s a shame some of the more recent ads have ruined the surprise. (Definitely watch the first film before you see Dragon 2, and do your best to avoid all commercials before you set foot in the theater.)
Hiccup warns Stoick that Drago is amassing dragons to expand his empire, and once again father and son disagree about the most efficient course of action. Should the village prepare for unavoidable battle (Stoick), or can the power-hungry nut job be reasoned with (Hiccup)? What follows is not just an exhilarating adventure – though it definitely scores in that regard – but also a meaty meditation on the nature of leadership. HTTYD2 dazzles us with vertiginous swoops, delights us with swashbuckling derring-do that harks back to the days of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Errol Flynn. It restores a sense of awe and mystery to a genre all too often cheapened for lowest-common-denominator mass consumption. What truly elevates this high-flying tale above the rest of the multiplex crop, however, is the way it grapples with the consequences of Hiccup’s choices, how it allows him to grow and evolve as he learns some painful life lessons. DeBlois has set a mighty lofty goal for himself by attempting to improve on a title with a built-in, passionate fan base. I’m happy to report he has the chops and the heart to pull it off.
In Star Wars terminology, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is to Part 1 what The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope, and DeBlois, who has announced a third Dragon is coming our way in 2016, peppers the film with Jedi references both overt and subtle. Here’s hoping the French Canadian filmmaker can sustain the same level of quality he has achieved here. He has made one of the best films of the year.
Hiccup is hardly the only young adult coming to terms with life-altering circumstances. Fourteen-year-old besties Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) share some growing pains of their own as teenagers trying to get by in an oppressively patriarchal society. The film’s setting is the Georgian capital of Tbilisi circa 1992. The collapse of the Soviet Union has turned the region into a powder keg of political and social unrest, but rather than to make this strife the focus of their drama, directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross relegate it to the sidelines. You catch the occasional line of dialogue about vigilantes wreaking havoc across the country, or a blink-and-you-missed-it news segment on a living room TV, but the directors wisely zero in on the girls’ day-to-day concerns instead: how Eka is constantly being bullied while walking home from the bread lines, how Natia’s dad becomes a violent jerk when he drinks too much.
You would think the presence of a handgun, as in a pistol Natia’s crush Lado (Data Zakareishvili) gives her for protection, would steer In Bloom in a more clichéd direction, but the filmmakers know better, using the firearm to flesh out the friends’ differing worldviews. Natia, accosted by a neighborhood lothario intent on making her his bride, sees in the gun a way to assert power, whereas Eka, whose father is conspicuously absent from home for reasons that are eventually made clear, argues the weapon will only create more problems for them.
Ekvtimishvili and Gross have no interest in hitting the expected story beats, letting the material unfold in episodic, though always involving, manner. In the way it etches each of the girls’ families unique dynamic, In Bloom has the sharply observed sensibility of a memoir. The movie’s most memorable sequence shows Eka dancing in Natia’s honor during an occasion that ought to be happy but most markedly is anything but. The filmmakers don’t dare cut away from Babluani’s haunted gaze, and how could they? Regret, sadness and devotion alternately register in the actress’ face, a fitting synthesis of the bittersweet film in which she stars.
In Bloom opens June 13 at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). That same day, How to Train Your Dragon 2 glides into area theaters in wide release.