Paramount Pictures’ second adaptation of Cressida Casswell’s series about Hiccup the Viking and his dragon, Toothless, finds our hero exploring his own calling, wrestling with family, and battling against a tyrant bent on controlling all of the dragons. Painted beautifully in realistic-looking animation, How To Train A Dragon 2 provides a dizzying, stunning ride from the skies to the ocean below, with fast paced action scenes and emotive dialogue that asks us to consider how we relate to our families and how we figure out why we’re here.
Hiccup (Baruchel) struggles with his father the chief, Stoick (Butler), who sees every moment as a teachable situation, as he grooms Hiccup to become the leader of Berk. Longing to figure out who he is, and what the world outside of Berk looks like, Hiccup ranges into the unknown, often trailed by his girlfriend, Astrid (Ferrera), and his friends, Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Hill), and Ruffnut (Wiig). These characters provide the sense that Hiccup is leading already, even if he doesn’t think he is, because there’s a general sense that where he goes, they’ll go.
On one expedition, Hiccup stumbles on a dragon trapper, Eret (Harrington), who taunts Hiccup with the knowledge that the dragon hunter Drago (Hounsou) is coming for Berk. As their confrontation ends, Hiccup is taken by a mysterious dragon rider (the trailer/commercial reveals that this is Hiccup’s mother and Stoick’s estranged wife), leading to the reunion between Hiccup, Stoick, and Valka (Blanchett). [Just writing those names reminds me that Dreamworks has aimed ‘top shelf’ at voice actor quality, and the humor and texture of the voices delivers stellar work.] Unfortunately, their reunion is cut short by the arrival of Drago, and it’s an all-out battle from that point onward.
Visually, this movie is amazing. In 3D, I would’ve told you I felt the wind rushing past my face as Hiccup and Toothless soared and dove in several of their flying sequences; the audience literally cried out and recoiled a few times when things flew at us, or when it appeared Toothless might crash. The Dreamworks crew can even fool you periodically into thinking you’re watching some motion-capture animation, that this just might be real (one particular scene with Stoick and Valka dancing, particularly Stoick’s beard’s movements, had me shaking my head).
Thematically, the movement from teenage footloose behavior to adulthood looms large. But there’s also a sense that Hiccup can embrace who he is once he recognizes the landed responsibility of Stoick and the freedom of the adventuring dragon riding of Valka. That he really does have the heart of a chief and the soul of the dragon, that his desire to create peace is a healthy blend of both of those influences flowing together. Ultimately, what happens is that Hiccup rises above the adversity, the tragedy, the danger, to lead because he settles into a balance of both. Hiccup becomes a man before our eyes, thrust through the cauldron of dragon fire into a world that desperately needs his blend of compassion and boldness.
Proverbs 22:6 says “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” That’s the truth that rises up through Hiccup’s development, that launches him to the places he needs to climb. His fierce fearlessness, his passionate peace-making, make for a beautiful character, who extends love to even his fiercest enemy. Whether his enemy accepts or not is not for Hiccup to decide. He can only be the boy, the man, the chief that he is called to be, blending heart, soul, and some 3D action into a film that catches fire on screen and delivers this summer’s animated hit.