Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Stoking the Dragon-fires, this soaring sequel succeeds in surpassing its predecessor.


This followup to Dreamworks’ breakout hit builds upon the interesting characters and story-world of the original.  Charting into untapped territory, Hiccup and Toothless break out of the cramped drama of the first film and explore the more exciting world beyond their island of Berk.  Expansive character building and a more epic scale provide the perfect setting for the film to spread its wings and craft an engaging coming-of-age story.  It keeps focus on its hero, though to the detriment of the remarkable new characters established.

The second How to grows beyond the necessary exposition of the first film.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) now stands at the top of the ranks, expected to take responsibility for the city – a task for which he does not feel prepared.  However, this decision takes a backseat as he comes across a long-forgotten foe threatening both his clan and his dragon allies.  Caught up in the battle, Hiccup must decide the best approach to deal with the threat, while discovering the identity of the mysterious Dragon Rider who appears out of the clouds.

Having already established the narrative universe and reconciled the simplistic “Us versus Them” plot in its predecessor, the sequel explores the larger world, focusing on Hiccup’s development as a leader and his relationships with fellow dragon pilots.  At the beginning, Jay Baruchel’s voice does not fit his new armor-clad image: an element smartly utilized to demonstrate his transition as a leader as he grows out of the voice and into the role as the film progresses.  Far superior to that of his first adventure, Hiccup’s journey examines not only becoming a commanding leader, but also one with a discerning mind. This is put to the test by an excellently performed Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), whose scheme both introduces a new depth to the dragon hierarchy and adds an undesired twinge of ethnocentric embattlement.

Furthermore, the newly introduced Dragon Rider is an interesting character, bringing a great twist to Hiccup’s world.  However, she is disappointingly underutilized, failing to live up to her established fighting proficiency when it is needed most.  Ultimately sitting out the climatic battles, she becoming another damsel for Hiccup to save, only finding purpose after the main conflict is resolved.  Thus, sequel follows the original: building strong female characters before having them to do nothing, allowing the male protagonist to achieve his due glory.

Despite a few unfortunate decisions of gender and ethnic stagnations, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the story this narrative world deserves.  Director Dean Dublois again proves he knows how to make an adorable creature relatable, and paces the movie well.  The film provides an engaging thrill ride that feels epic as one would expect from a story about dragon-riding vikings.  Hiccup’s journey is well designed, inviting the viewer to connect their own struggles with his high-flying capers. An appealing adventure flick, Dreamworks has yet again aimed high and landed snuggly amongst the clouds.



Film Review: The Wind Rises

Haunting and ebullient, The Wind Rises soars above the fold as Miyazaki’s most profound and personal adventure.

Not since I experienced the heart-string plucking of Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away have I seen the director’s deep and emotional passion so fully caulk his work.  The now 73-year-old gentleman’s purported last work is a masterpiece of narrative, capturing and commenting beautifully both on the state of his country pre-WWII and on people’s intrinsic desires towards rising above themselves and their culture to change the world for the better.

The Wind Rises offers a deeply personal adventure into the life of Jirô Horikoshi – a blooming star of the Land of the Rising Sun during the early 20th century.  His optimism and work in engineering helps bring Japan out of its slump following the 1923 Kanto earthquake with the revitalization of the nation’s aviation industry, while simultaneously creating one of the most iconic and terrifying machines of the second World War.  Driven by a passion to create beautiful airplanes, Jirô works tirelessly to craft the perfect plane, all the while falling into destiny’s design with a charming woman.  A darkly real tale, the film hinges around the fascinating idea that, as circumstances amount, we must “tenter de vivre!” – try to live.

Unlike his prior work which flows with a natural Hollywood style, Wind is reminiscent of the great movements in the cinema arts:  Italian NeoRealism and the French New Wave.  Look no further than the whimsical score (appropriately titled “A Journey”) headed by a lilting, gypsy-esque accordion and the distinct fret-work of the Spanish Guitar, and it becomes evident.  The film’s pace and tone left me with the awe and wonder I know as if I had seen Bicycle Theives again or Godard’s Breathless; it is like a heavy pendant one puts on and wears the weight around for a day.

With a fantastic and surprising voice cast behind the Dubbed version – including John Krasinski, Martin Short, and Werner Herzog – the only element which blocked me from the film was the performance of Jirô by Joseph Gordon Levitt.  Whether it was the blankly animated optimism which he always exuded, or the matching lackluster voice which Levitt lent the character, Jirô seemed at times unaware of the events around him, so lost in his dreams he was.

Regardless of this minor trifle, The Wind Rises proves itself worthy of the critical praise given it.  A bold testament to a single man’s dream of improving the world around him, Jirô perfectly personifies the hopes and desires director Miyazaki has infused into each of his films.  This movie glides valiantly on concepts built of High Art, and takes its viewers on a v flight of fancy.  If this is indeed to be his last work, the world and this reviewer bows in respect to the Japanese Master of animated stories, and salutes him for a perfect film with which to sail off into the sunset.