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Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:02 am

Dragon 2 soars above other summer fare

Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon 2.


Not content to play it safe and give audiences the same old “boy and his dragon” adventure, director Dean DeBlois ups the emotional and thematic stakes in How to Train Your Dragon 2, an exciting, challenging and emotionally moving film that exceeds expectations by not giving us a children’s story but one replete with weighty adult concerns. Think The Empire Strikes Back or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and you’ll have some idea of the sort of tone DeBlois achieves here. This is a tale that sees its main character grapple with adult concerns for the first time and comes to realize the world does not consist of absolutes. Contending with the unexpected can cause emotional damage that make’s a dragon’s burn seem like child’s play.

Five years has passed since the end of the last film and much has changed in the kingdom of Berk. Instead of fearing and hunting dragons, the citizens there have embraced them as allies and pets, thanks in large part to the work of Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) who’s swayed their opinions with his own fire-breather Toothless. Even his father, King Stoick (Gerard Butler) has changed his ways having converted the village-forge from a weapons making operation to one that constructs dragon-saddles. Hiccup is content with his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), and all seems right with the world, though he’s concerned about filling his father’s shoes. He knows that soon, he will have to take his place. However, things take a turn when the two lovebirds take an excursion one day and come across Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon catcher who’s been commissioned to deliver as many of the flying creatures as he can to Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a despot intent on forming a dragon army to conquer the world. Upon returning to Berk with the news, Hiccup finds his world in turmoil as this impels his father to employ defensive measures to protect his kingdom. However, his son flees in an effort to reason with Drago, prompting Stoick and his loyal friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to pursue him in an effort to save the impetuous boy.

The adventure that ensues doesn’t lack its share of surprises. A person from Hiccup and Stoick’s past is found. However, as with any great adventure story, so much depends on the villain and Dragon 2 sports one of the most memorable ones I’ve seen in years. Appearing as if he’s stepped out of a Wagnerian opera, DeBlois casts this character in a broad, grand manner – imposing physically with his massive body frame and scarred face – skulking about in the shadows. He’s a genuinely frightening figure and this portrait of uncompromising evil is complete with Hounsou delivering grave line-readings.

DeBlois and his crew set out to create a visually epic film and they succeed handsomely. Too be sure, some of the flying scenes are a bit busy and may cause vertigo for those not accustomed to being astride a dragon. However, sights of the churning vast ocean, a tropical sanctuary and ominous, mist-shrouded isles are rendered in such a meticulous and dramatic manner that one can’t help but applaud the craftsmanship employed as well DeBlois’ keen eye in creating a consistent visual tone that helps buoy the narrative.

Dragon 2 will surprise many expecting nothing more than an empty child’s exercise – It has greater themes it is intent on tackling. Hiccup’s transition into adulthood is fraught with peril – both physical and emotional – that irreparably change him. The existential journey he takes proves an effective metaphor for the transition we all must take, with the film effectively underscoring that adhering to a moral code based on selflessness and sacrifice is the only way to soar.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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