I’m told by some older critics that we’re supposed to lead our readers for paragraphs on end about whether a movie is good or bad. I’m told we’re not supposed to use superlatives like “masterpiece.” Then I’m told, “Criticism’s a dying art.” Maybe it’s because we’re spending all our words building suspense over whether a movie’s good or not.
So let’s get this out of the way first and foremost: “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is good. Really good. One of the best American animated films good. I’d even call it a “masterpiece.”
That last paragraph is 35 words. That’s how quickly a critic can tell someone if a movie’s good, and I was being wordy. I’m much more concerned with why and how a movie’s good. In a film like “Dragon 2,” what does it communicate to your children? How does it reflect on our world?
“Dragon 2” picks up where the first “Dragon” left off, with a society of vikings having domesticated dragons they had once feared and fought. Everyone has one now, and dragon racing is the new sport. The pioneer of this new society, young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), is uncomfortable with the concept of becoming his village’s chief. He would rather explore the world beyond his village’s borders with his dragon Toothless.
This is the only family film I can think of that centers on two amputee heroes – Toothless uses an artificial tail fin and Hiccup has a prosthetic leg. Toothless’s bond to Hiccup often reflects that of a service animal. In a country engaged in wars for the past 13 years, I applaud “Dragon 2” for including heroes like these. Instead of being stigmatized as too damaged, we can look up to them as we might any other role model.
The movie stresses acceptance in a number of ways – including dragons, previously feared as too different or threatening to the Viking way of life, has made Hiccup’s village of Berk stronger, more efficient, and happier.
As he maps the unknown world, Hiccup encounters dragon trappers. These men work for the warlord and dragon slaver Drago, but they are harassed by a mysterious stranger they refer to as the Dragon Thief. She frees as many dragons as she can. Hiccup will doubtlessly meet her, and she proves to be one of the strongest, most unique female characters I’ve seen in a cartoon. His introduction to her above the clouds is a haunting, otherworldly scene, the kind we don’t expect from cartoons but that can burn itself into our minds as an iconic moment in cinema.
“Dragon 2” folds mythology of all kinds into its story and its visuals. There are epic battles aplenty, but there is loss, too. In contrast to many of our blockbuster films, loss in “Dragon 2” is permanent; there’s no “retcon” to take away its sting and – in true mythological fashion – it can come at the hands of your most trusted friend. Children can handle this; death used to be a staple of the fairy tales we told. Handled properly, it can create both an emotional moment and a lesson in growing up. Testing our reactions to the loss of loved ones in fiction is one of the many ways we eventually learn to cope with it in our real lives. It’s one of the most primal reasons we tell stories – these are crucial lessons that need to remain in our fiction.
And the visuals…there aren’t enough superlatives in the world. In 2-D or 3-D, this is a feast for the eyes. Visual consultant Roger Deakins, who boasts 11 Oscar nominations as a cinematographer for films including “Skyfall,” “True Grit,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” plays with color and shadow in a way that makes you feel as if you’ve glimpsed past the pages of a true Norse epic while still maintaining a cartoon sensibility.
Writer-director Dean DeBlois has crafted something deeply special, an exciting adventure that shows us “less able” isn’t the most accurate term, that celebrates inclusiveness, that treasures the tools of peace over war, that shows the kids and reminds the adults in the audience how we grow up, that works as a cartoon, an epic, a comedy, and an art film all in one. So, yes, it’s a masterpiece, but I told you that at the beginning. Why it’s a masterpiece, how it’s a masterpiece, that’s what will make it stick in your mind, what makes it so worth talking about, so worth celebrating. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is rated PG for action and humor.