I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 last week and it left me with a lot of thoughts about movies. For one, let me just state this outright: I think this is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. If not the best, it’s my favorite. Inside Llewyn Davis was too good to ignore in that conversation, but that was also released last year. I just didn’t see it until this year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was good, but not as good as Dragon. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, too, but it doesn’t compare favorably to Dragon. The Lego Movie is a lock to be nominated come Oscar season next year, but even that I’d have a hard time saying was better or more interesting than Dragon.
The one thing I can say with assurance, and I think this speaks to the current state of movies as a whole, is that animated films have (on the whole) been much better than live-action films recently. I could write several posts breaking down why this might be true (visuals, breadth of story, simplicity, etc.) but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that animated films, or kids’ films if you’re the type to make that distinction, have taken greater risks and told better stories recently than the majority of movies aimed at young adults or adults.
It’s hard to say why that is. There are a lot of variables and Pixar’s influence on the way animated stories are told is a big part of it. There are also arguments to be made that because there are a much lower number of animated films being released, the sample size is too small to compare to live-action films.
What I can do is talk about why How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so good.
Hiccup: He’s a great hero, not least because he straddles the line between relatability and wish-fulfillment so well. He’s flawed in obvious ways (his small stature, his stubborness, his nervousness, his peg-leg) but is still ultra-competent. He tells the audience that just because you’re weak in some areas, that doesn’t mean your strengths can’t allow you to become more than the sum of your parts. He invents gadgets to help him become more formidable. He relies on bravery to make decisions and do things no one else is willing to.
But most importantly, he does the right thing. What stuck out to me most while watching Dragon is that Hiccup’s last resort is violence, and even then he avoids it as much as possible. This is another way that he is an outcast to his own people, but because he is so sure in his convictions he eventually learns their respect and converts them to his way of thinking anyway.
Relationships: The entire series is built on the relationships between several sets of characters. Hiccup and Toothless (his dragon) take center-stage, as their relationship is the embodiment of many of the themes of the story. But Hiccup also has fun, caring relationships with most of the other characters. His girlfriend, Astrid. His Father, Stoic. Other characters that it would ruin the story to reveal. And the supporting characters have fun to watch relationships, as well. The twins, Ruffnut and Tuffnut. Stoic and his best friend, Gobber. Gobber’s relationships with the dragons and the children on the island. The relationships serve the story and make you care about what’s happening.
Stakes: One of the themes of the film is expanding your horizons and accepting change. We like Berk and the people on it, so to watch it deal with negative outside influences is difficult to watch. But those stakes are nothing compared to the personal stakes the film raises. At the end of Act 2 there is a moment where absolutely everything seems lost. And you feel it because of the way the film has immersed you in its world and its characters.
Humor: One of the things I love most about animated film is the way they balance humor and drama. Dragon does a great job of this, too. I’ve found that I respond to dramatic situations more if you can make me laugh beforehand (or sometimes during). The jokes in Dragon are mostly funny and do a good job of either breaking tension, or shading character. In short, its used in such a way that doesn’t distract from the drama of the proceedings, but instead adds to it by making the audience enjoy spending time with these characters and situations.
Visuals: This film is gorgeous. The cinematography of the characters riding their dragons, the inventiveness of the way they utilize them, is awesome. The film is expansive but never loses its sense of geography or allows two settings to overlap. Everything about the world of dragons, from the setting to the designs of the dragons themselves, is functional and beautiful.
Themes and Moral Center: As I’ve mentioned more than once, through Hiccup and the themes of the film there are good lessons to be learned by children. Hiccup never resorts to violence, preferring instead to talk to people and show them why they are misinformed. We are taught that just because we don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or dangerous. Just that it’s different. But what sticks out to me most, especially considering the way I approach writing, is its optimism. Hiccup believes in the good in all things and while the story veers into dark, uncompromising places, it still rewards him in the end for his beliefs. With this film it’s difficult to say he’s in the right. His unwavering belief in the good of others and his need to try non-violent tactics before resorting to warfare leads to dire situations. But in the end he pulls through and learns some valuable lessons along the way.
Look, I know animated films may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But right now they’re, to me, the more interesting offerings in the cinema. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a perfect film and I’m sure better ones will be released, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more gratifying experience in the theater this summer.