Few aspects in Western culture are as immune from criticism as our love for our pets. You can be the world’s most jaded, intellectual, cynical hipster and still rest easy knowing nobody will judge you for thinking your dog is the bestest, sweetest, most perfectest friend in the whole wide world. Whatever biological history of inbreeding led them to this point, your dogs and (some of your) cats seem to have morphed into living stuffed animals who seem to exist just to love you unconditionally. Or more simply put: Your dog is the one creature on the planet who will never get upset with you. You don’t have to worry about your dog getting edgy when you bring up politics, or hurt that you forgot her birthday even when you had a Facebook reminder, or irritated that you won’t shut up about Game of Thrones even though you know she doesn’t get cable, so seriously, why would this be interesting to her? No, your dog will just look up at you devotedly and hope against hope that you might take a few moments to scratch her behind the ears. We’re devoted to them in part because they seem capable of sustaining the perfect uncomplicated love that isn’t even possible in the healthiest human relationships.
2010’s surprisingly wonderful How to Train Your Dragon did many things well, but its smartest move was tapping into that bottomless reservoir of good-will that audiences have for their pets. Toothless, the film’s star dragon, became a practical repository for favorite pet traits: he had a cat’s playful expressiveness, a horse’s willingness to be ridden, and a dog’s fiercely protective and unrequited love for its person. The film took the time-tested boy-and-his dog formula and committed to it with so much disarming sincerity that it managed to make all of the old clichés seem fresh again. You could call the film a shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser, but damned if it wasn’t an effective shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser. Few people are immune to a story that reminds them how wonderful their pets are, and the film milked that soft spot for all it was worth.
The result was a rare film from Dreamworks Animation that was both a box office hit and a critical darling. The studio wasted no time exploiting this success into a massive franchise, with multiple TV shows, holiday specials, and even stage shows following each other in short succession. But to the studio’s credit, they didn’t rush on the sequel. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has arrived four years after its predecessor, an unusually long time for a studio that rarely waits more than two years before pumping out part two of a moderately successful animated film. After seeing the film, it’s clear that this extra time directly reflects the care and attention that went into making the sequel a worthy follow-up. Where the first film limited its aims to telling a simple story effectively, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is far more narratively, emotionally, and thematically ambitious. The film is still fundamentally about the connections people share with their pets, but the film takes a surprisingly mature and multi-faceted approach to that relationship, and the result is a rare sequel that’s actually more powerful than its predecessor.
I won’t go into too much detail about the story here, as some of the potential spoilers come early on. But the basic premise entails young Hiccup’s now-pro-dragon Viking community learning of a potential threat from Draco, a crazed warrior who sails from shore to shore hunting dragons and turning them into submissive weapons for his massive armada. Hiccup rushes off to confront Draco, confident that he can change the warrior’s mind and persuade him to see the benefits of the Vikings’ peaceful symbiotic relationship with their dragons. This sets off a plot that has far-ranging implications for Hiccup and his relationships with this family, his community, and, of course, his dragon. The film attempts to cover a great deal of ground, and it has much to say on topics ranging from the possible limits of pacifism, the role parents play in shaping our identities, the responsibilities of leadership, balancing the needs of the local community versus the global community, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the consequences of animal abuse. This is lot for an ostensible children’s film to bite off, and to be fair, the film handles some of its messages with more grace and subtlety than others. But the filmmakers are ultimately remarkably successful at letting these themes build off of one another organically without sacrificing character-driven storytelling.
Of those themes, however, the film cuts deepest in its treatment of animal abuse. I said I won’t give away any major spoilers here, but I will say that a tragic second act development is going to feel especially wrenching for anyone who’s seen an abused animal lose control and lapse into blind violent instinct. The filmmakers even attempt to imagine the animal’s point of view in this violent state, which is depicted here as a blurry void where loved ones disappear into blurry shapes and noises. It’s an act of empathy – an attempt at imagining the painful places our pets can go when we can’t reach them – and it’s empathy that the filmmakers demand of the audience as well. Where the first film took the beauty of the human-animal bond at face value, this one has the fortitude to put that bond through legitimately harrowing challenges. The film takes a pointed stance on the compassion and empathy that we owe our animal companions, even – and, indeed, especially – when instinct and abuse robs them of their agency.
But reading the review up to this point might give one the impression that the film is a solemn sermon, which is certainly not the case. Significant screen time is still devoted to exuberant spectacle, with giddy flying scenes and some of the best large-scale battle scenes since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film makes some of the best use of 3D technology in recent memory, particularly in a mid-film action set-piece that manages to stage separate battles in the foreground and background simultaneously, all in perfect focus. The film is at its best, however, when it’s simply letting its main characters – human and dragon alike – interact with each other. This comes across through voice cast, of course, with Jay Barachel, Gerard Butler, and Cate Blanchett all giving subtle, multi-layered vocal performances (the film even partially redeems Butler’s performance in Phantom of the Opera by finding a context where his raggedy singing voice is actually dramatically appropriate). But the film is more intuitive at developing these characters when they aren’t speaking. There are requisite moments where people state exactly what they’re feeling for the younger viewers, but the filmmakers also place significant trust in expressive animation and sensitive music to convey much of the characters’ conflicting internal emotions (this is particularly true of Hiccup’s interactions with Cate Blanchet’s new character, Valka). It’s perhaps for this reason that the film never feels heavy-handed, even when it does introduce serious issues; there’s never a point where the characters and their relationships aren’t driving the story.
So while the film isn’t entirely perfect, for my money it’s easily the best studio-produced animated film since Toy Story 3 in 2010. For that matter, it’s the first film from Dreamworks Animation that deserves serious consideration alongside Pixar’s best. The film introduces heavier emotional gravity, but it manages to do so in ways that actually enhance the unabashed joy that made its predecessor so well-loved. It’s disappointing that the film has struggled so much at the box office, but I can say with confidence that if you want summer popcorn spectacle, you’re going to have a much better time here then you are with any of the transforming/mutant/superhero/Godzillas currently fighting for your attention. It will be a shame if the film’s disappointing box office leads to the cancellation of the planned third installment, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is more than strong enough to stand on its own without getting roped into a trilogy.
Steven Spielberg once famously claimed John Williams’ music for Jaws accounted for 50% of the film’s success. In the case of John Powell’s music for the original How to Train Your Dragon, I’d bump that number up to at least 70%. As well-animated, edited, scripted, and acted as that film was, it might have been nothing more than a than a well-meaning piece of fluff without Powell’s unabashedly earnest, heart-piercing music. Dramatically urgent without ever straying into sentimentality, Powell’s music was frequently the biggest reason to feel invested in scenes that might have played out like tired clichés in any other film. The film’s many dialogue-free sequences gave Powell the opportunity to write the sort of emotionally direct, instantly memorable melodies that have long-since gone out of style in Hollywood, and the result was a rare contemporary film that actually allowed music to drive its narrative. The score has gone on to become what is quite possibly the biggest fan-favorite in the film score community in nearly a decade, and it’s left the composer with a great deal to live up to with this follow-up.
But he certainly made sure to take the time he needed to get it right. When Powell scored How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, it was one of approximately several thousand animated Hollywood films he had scored over the course of several years. He followed Dragon’s success with an insane sprint that entailed scoring Mars Needs Moms, Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2, The Lorax, and Ice Age: Continental Drift, all back-to-back over the course of 2011 and 2012. While he did a pretty amazing job with a few of these, it was also clear towards the end of this run that he was starting to run out of steam. Following the last Ice Age in 2012, he took a well-needed sabbatical from Hollywood, a decision he apparently made both to spend time with his family and to recharge his compositional batteries. In other words, How to Train Your Dragon 2 marks more than his return to the franchise; it also marks his return to film music itself (ok, technically his score for Rio 2 was released a few months before Dragon 2, but it’s splitting hairs).
While he obviously didn’t take his break specifically for the sake of writing a great score for How to Train Your Dragon 2, the extra time he spent absorbing new musical influences and rethinking his technique certainly shows in this sequel score. While it certainly reprises much of what everyone loved about his first score, Powell has also taken this as an opportunity to push himself into much denser and more detailed orchestral writing, drawing in equal measure on English composers like Vaughan Williams and impressionists like Ravel. This means that, much like the film, Powel’s score often comes across as a more complex and nuanced continuation of its predecessor. It possibly loses some of the original’s non-stop emotional immediacy in the process, but it makes up for those instant pleasures by taking the time to build to what is ultimately the most profoundly moving music of Powell’s career.
Having said that, Powell certainly doesn’t abandon the key features that made his first score so beloved. All of the old themes and motifs are back, from the Vikings’ burly Scottish theme to the insanely catchy “Flight Test” theme that hasn’t been out of my head since 2010. Powell gets a great deal of mileage from spinning new variations on these themes, and the score is worth listening to just to hear Powell finding endless ways to twist the first film’s melodies in and out of new harmonies and orchestrations. The caveat is that because the film isn’t quite as linear or straightforward as its predecessor, the score has a little less room to carry the film with broad, long-lined statements of these themes (though mammoth showstoppers like “Battle of the Bewilderbeast” will certainly fill that craving). At the same time, not always being in the spotlight also gives Powell the space for more intricate and nuanced orchestral writing, and his clever new arrangements are captured in a detailed recording that’s miles above the first score’s notoriously muddy mix (which was the first score’s only real shortcoming).
As nice as it is to hear old favorites, however, Powell anchors the score on a new theme, a wistful melody with vaguely Celtic overtones. Though it initially seems to represent Hiccup’s relationship with a new character who enters the film, it eventually comes to stand for Hiccup’s evolving relationship with his dragon (and while I can’t go into detail here, I will say that using the same theme for the two connections is narratively significant). Unlike virtually every buoyant theme from the first film, this melody has a melancholy edge that speaks to the graver emotions the film has its characters face. True, Powell often uses the theme to joyous effect, most prominently during a mid-film flying montage that sends the theme through everything from rousing swashbuckling statements to effervescent Madrigal choir arrangements. Yet even in iterations like this, melody’s minor chords always carry traces of sadness that make even jubilant moments seem like they’re constantly on the cusp of despair. Multiple relationships in the film are underlined by an unspoken fear of loss and abandonment, and the music keeps that fear present even in seemingly lighthearted moments.
That added level of gravity also pays enormous dividends during the climax, where Powell transforms the theme from a desperate and vulnerable choral arrangement into a massive “rallying the troops” march. It’s here that Powell’s score truly elevates and transforms the film; the logic of certain plot points in the climax are arguably a bit muddy, but the music is so overwhelmingly powerful that it’s all but impossible to notice anything but the huge emotional stakes playing out onscreen. The music manages to answer questions that the script withholds, and it makes the film’s bittersweet resolution feel as world-changing to the audience as it does to the characters. It’s enough to give the score a slight edge on its already nigh-perfect predecessor, which also makes this the finest score Powell has written to date. I’m under the impression that Powell will only be taking the occasional film scoring assignment from this point on, but if slowing down results in music this profoundly moving, I hope he continues to take as much time as he needs.
Film Review: ****1/2
Score Review: *****