Following up the unexpectedly fantastic How to Train Your Dragon was always going to be a tricky task. The only American animated film to rival Pixar’s best output at the time (and still the case, though since joined by its sequel here and arguably The Lego Movie), maintaining such standards would require something very special indeed. Thankfully, former Disney employee Dean DeBlois (who cut his teeth there with the underrated Lilo & Stitch) has matched his original beat for beat, and even arguably outdone it in terms of story weight, visual flair and emotional impact. This isn’t just a cute film for kids with a few jokes for the grown-ups thrown in – this is a genuinely bold and daring piece of cinema, that displays a complete mastery of visual storytelling which puts most contemporary live-action “adult” movies to shame.

Like the original, the pacing of this film is absolutely perfect. Everything skips along at a brisk pace, exposition and plot development hurried along with an economy of storytelling that isn’t as easy as it looks, only for the film to stop completely and spend long, eventless scenes developing characters with surprising emotional complexity. This is at its strongest with the central relationship between protagonist Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, now both disabled and dependent on each other emotionally as well as physically, but also comes into its own in one particular moment – when Hiccup’s mother and father are reunited, the film decides to take five minutes out for them to sing a love song to each other, and what follows is a totally unprecedented and mature expression of some very grown-up, nuanced emotions. Kids might be bored senseless at it, but any adults might find themselves unexpectedly emotionally involved in this dumb dragon movie they only went along to so that their kids would stop whining about it.

On that note, it’s worth talking a little more about what Dean DeBlois brings to the table as a director here, seeing as almost nobody else is. I remember when I saw his debut film, the aforementioned Lilo & Stitch, and I thought what a great job he’d done with the Stitch character in particular. With practically no dialogue to help guide proceedings, he crafted a loveable and memorable character that was funny and sweet, which reminded me of a puppy (albeit a highly dangerous one from outer space). He pulled the same trick with the first How to Train Your Dragon film – Toothless’s appeal was purely that of a wounded puppy being nursed back to health, showing loyalty and personality without the advantage of actually being able to say anything. He does the same thing here with new characters and old, essentially bringing an intrinsic understanding of how the limitations of animation can also be its strengths.

There’s one other thing he has a perfect handle on too, which is the effective impact of emotionally surging music. He directed the stunning Sigur Ros documentary Heima (and got lead singer Jonsi to write the end credits song for the first Dragon film), so he knows how to match sound and visuals to produce an emotional response, and he deploys this with utterly manipulative (but undeniably brilliant) effect throughout this film. The news that he is to helm a third instalment is very encouraging indeed – nor is it surprising, as this sequel is structured very much as though it’s the middle part of a trilogy (and with its dark themes and to some extent ambiguous ending, comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back are not inappropriate), so there is plenty of room to continue what looks set to be an extraordinary series of films.

Using the strengths, and even the limitations, of animation to tell a visual story almost perfectly10
Keeping the pace going, but taking its time when it's important9
Brilliant character animation, and some of the best "cinematography" the animated medium has ever seen10
Use of score and music to convey emotion10
Leaving things open for a sequel, which is admittedly very welcome8
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

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