How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review: Vermithrax Overwhelmingly Positive
[Editor's Note: The following review contains a vague spoiler about one important plot point from How to Train Your Dragon 2.]
The day humans rose to the top of the food chain was most likely the same day we invented monsters. And for a time they filled that unexpected void, giving us reasons to exercise the emotion of genuine fear. But as our civilization grew and our ability to destroy ourselves expanded, it seems as though we began to look at these beasts, leviathans, demons and ghouls as something not unlike us. They were now sad things to be sympathized with, creatures who were themselves worthy of love. And once we became our monsters, our monsters – rather unexpectedly – now needed monsters of their own. And it would certainly seem to speak volumes about our collective ego that when the time came to imagine the very thing that makes our own nightmares cower in fear, we thought of nothing but ourselves.
The How to Train Your Dragon movies seem to have a canny understanding of mankind’s relationship with its monsters. Its ongoing tale of humans who fear these flapping terrors, then befriend them, and occasionally act like monsters themselves dramatizes a satisfyingly broad gamut of fantasy lore. Always, of course, we are at the center. For although How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2 preach respect for nature and present compelling a case for peaceful coexistence with these giant flying lizards, the dragons themselves are always “ours.” The dragons in these movies cannot speak, nor do they act for themselves unless driven to by their emotional connection, for better or worse, with a "real" human. And as the Homo Sapien heroes wax rhapsodic in the foreground about finding their own special place in the world, these scaly behemoths prance behind them in the background, no more than playful housecats with the power – almost incidentally – to destroy us all.
That perverse Pokemon fantasy, to take singular ownership of something unique and beautiful and dangerous, was averted in the first How to Train Your Dragon when it established a meaningful bond between its protagonist, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and the dragon called Toothless. Their union seems symbiotic and parallel; as How to Train Your Dragon 2 points out, Hiccup destroyed the dragon’s tail fin only to lose his own leg by the end of the first film. But writer/director Dean DeBlois – going solo this time (his former co-director Chris Sanders absconded to direct The Croods) – chooses to illustrate in this sequel just how very wrong the relationship between man and monster can become: Hiccup’s villain this time is a dragon trainer whose army of firebreathing beasts responds only to his abusiveness, and only because he has declared himself their alpha male. No symbiosis, no friendship, only power and power’s miserable byproduct: subjugation.
Like the best fantasy stories – and it seems these movies are indeed likely to go down, by modern standards at least, as some of the best – DeBlois’ film paints a proper saga of conflicting ideologies against a handsome backdrop, and populates the tale with distinctive characters, unexpected revelations, genuine humor, exciting action and emotionally affecting consequence. Like the best stories for children, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has the ability to captivate as it inspires virtuousness, and also provides formative dramatic traumas that will likely be appreciated years later as a shared cultural touchstone: as your parents wept for Bambi’s mother, as you sobbed for Atreyu's loyal steed Artax, so too shall your children need consolation after these credits roll. And they will be all the better for it. We need something to fear, we need something to fantasize about, and we do need something to weep for; the best of movies offer audiences the rare opportunity to fulfill these emotional needs together, in the dark, where we are all as one.
As the inspiring scale and painterly images of How to Train Your Dragon 2 unfold, as the story reveals its simple yet thoughtful plans, as the conflicts are resolved with imagination and exhilaration and a surprising empathy, you may experience that rare sense of wonder that comes from losing yourself in a proper, well told story. A tale that captures the imagination from all angles, navigating the thin but brightly colored lines between drama and comedy, fantasy and real, wholesome and morally complex. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is inspired fantasy, a glorious entertainment, and the sort of film that has something to offer everyone, individually and as a whole. These are, after all, our dragons, and they have a lot to say about us.