Cannes: How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

How to Train Your Dragon was a pretty amiable animated feature, its strengths demonstrated mostly in a selection of well-realised flight sequences. On top of that fun, the plot did carry some emotional weight, thanks to the pairing of Hiccup and his first pet, the dragon Toothless.

But now How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a huge improvement on the first film, taking its strengths, improving on them, and also expanding the world and the scope of the story significantly.

Building on what the first film did so well, the flight sequences in How to Train Your Dragon 2 are truly astonishing. Director Dean DeBlois, aided by visual consultant Roger Deakins and Dreamworks Animations’ hundreds of highly talented individuals, gets things off to a great start with a racing scene, and follow up quickly with a flight sequence for Hiccup and Toothless that left my mouth agape even after it had finished.

The virtual camera shows us just what we need to see to be at one with Hiccup on his dragon, keeping us close enough by his side to feel every twist and turn. Deblois crucially also knows when to shoot wider, to help us better understand the spatial dynamics at play. There is a great deal of speed in this sequence, and the later flight scenes too, but the film never moves so fast that we can’t keep up. Keeping things thrillingly fast but ensuring they can still be immediately understood is a difficult balancing act but it’s been expertly handled here.

And the first film’s composer John Powell continues to bring everything together in a magnificent fashion, smartly blending a stand-out theme with effective score in a manner so often flubbed by his peers.

Even while broadening the canvas, this second instalment wisely keeps us close to the characters we already know, and perhaps hold some affection for. There’s the definite sense of some world building going at the edges, and I expect much of this for the good of future sequels. Multiple lines of dialogue reference the possibility of there being more Night Fury dragons, which seems be a good tip-off as to where we’re heading. Thankfully, none of this preparation work feels obnoxious or shoehorned in.

Indeed, the script is an excellent example of how to write a sequel, drawing upon what made the first film great at the same time as adding plenty of new ideas. There’s a minor issue with some with characters over-explaining their motivations or what’s happening in a scene, particularly during the action set-pieces, but this heavy-handed exposition is most likely a deliberate concession to the film’s youngest audience, who might struggle to keep up without it.

There’s one other misstep that sticks a little. The film’s main villain, Drago Bludvist appears to be the only character of colour in an entirely Caucasian world, and while there is some suggestion that he was perhaps badly burnt, which would potentially provide a reason for his darker complexion, there are certainly implications throughout the film that Drago is different from the main characters and comes from afar. This sense that this villain represents ‘the other’ is only compounded by the casting of Beninese American actor Djimon Hounsou as his voice, and is certainly a little problematic.

It is also perhaps worth mentioning at this juncture that How to Train Your Dragon 2‘s heroic protagonist Hiccup has a physical disability, something that he uses to his advantage and which makes him special. That, combined with some pretty smart gender politics – mostly in the side-plots of Hiccup’s friends falling in and out of lust and love – make How to Train Your Dragon 2 one of the more progressive toons of late.

Offering both exhilarating action spectacle and a highly compelling story, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is superb, and a real step-up from the first film.

The US release for the film is set for June 14th and we’ll be seeing the film in the UK from July 3rd.