If you've ever been around me, then you're likely aware of my views on the subject of heroism.
In short, I'm a cynic.
As a society, it seems like we love to throw around the word "hero" to describe anyone we've come to admire. Sometimes, they are public servants who in the course of their daily routine risk their health and welfare. Sometimes, our heroes are sports figures. Sometimes, we use the word "hero" to describe our favorite celebrities, or a beloved family member, or simply someone who does something that we simply can't imagine.
I, on the other hand, am not one who easily uses the word "hero."
For me, you can be a remarkably brave public servant who bravely goes into challenging situations day after day. But, that doesn't necessarily make you a hero.
An athlete as a hero? I don't think so.
A seriously ill person courageously facing their illness? Admirable, but not necessarily heroic.
Hiccup is a hero.
A hero is someone who, in almost all cases, has absolutely no clue that they're a hero. A hero is someone who sacrifices their health, their welfare, their well-being, their hopes, and their dreams to improve the lives of others either through protection or risk-taking or advocacy or a willingness to endure so that others may not. True heroes are rare.
We first met Hiccup, again voiced by Jay Baruchel, five years ago as we all embarked on an unexpectedly glorious journey through the land of Berk, a land where Vikings and dragons learned to co-exist thanks to the heroic sacrifices and actions of Hiccup. If you didn't see the original How to Train Your Dragon, I encourage you to do so. It was the film that truly put DreamWorks on the map for animated features, and it was a truly enjoyable, awe-inspiring, and life-affirming film. I still remember entering the movie theater expecting to be wildly under-impressed and leaving the theater completely in awe of the wonderful animation, enchanting story, and a diverse community that celebrated its men, women, dragons, and individuals with disabilities.
In case you're not aware, Hiccup became an amputee after an encounter with a dragon and, rather than play his character for stereotypes, How to Train Your Dragon infused him with wonder and intelligence and sensitivity and, yes, even heroism. It was, quite simply, one of the most refreshingly wonderful portrayals of disability I'd ever seen on the big screen and certain within the framework of an animated feature.
By the end of How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup had created a more unified village and had taught the residents of Berk that they could co-exist with the dragons. He impressed his father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), the village's chief, and had befriended a rare Night Fury he affectionately names Toothless.
While a sequel to the surprise hit How to Train Your Dragon is certainly not unexpected, and there's already a third film in the pipeline, what is a surprise is that the film doesn't necessarily feel like a money grab but rather like an honest extension of the original story. While How to Train Your Dragon 2 starts off feeling just a bit less fresh because, after all, we are far more familiar with the story and its themes, it's easy to get quickly settled in and to start once again enjoying another journey with these characters. Hiccup is now 20, a young man yet still figuring out his place in life, and facing the fact that his father wants him to be in line to become the next chief, a responsibility for which Hiccup is hesitant. His former competitor Astrid (America Ferrera) is now his girlfriend, confidante, and greatest encourager, but even with her gentle nudging he isn't quite sure. For now, he's content to spend his day exploring new lands and discovering new territories while his other friends, such as Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), play the sort of game involving dragons and sheep and, well, you'll just have to see it for yourself.
Parents of young children should probably be aware that How to Train Your Dragon 2 does make a couple of darker than expected choices considering this is a PG-rated film clearly directed at children and families. However, if your child has handled the darkness that can occasionally crop up in a Pixar film then this film shouldn't be much of a problem. You might just be aware that you may find yourself having a conversation about it on the way home.
In this film, the peaceful nation that Berk has become is disrupted when an exploring Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon a dragon trader named Eret (Kit Harington). Eret actually works for one seriously bad dude, Drago (Djimon Hounsou), whose reputation is so dark that even Hiccup's normally bravado father quickly closes the doors of Berk rather than force a confrontation.
Hiccup, on the other hand, goes off in search of Drago hoping to convince him of the error of his ways. Along his journey, he discovers a surprising connection with Valka (Cate Blanchett), one of two extraordinarily strong female roles in the film, and writer/director Dean DeBlois infuses the film with some of the most gloriously beautiful animated sequences in an animated feature in quite some time and, maybe even more surprisingly, some choreographed sequences that actually justify the use of 3-D animation.
While there's an awareness that there is to be a How to Train Your Dragon 3, it's a strong testimony to DeBlois that this second film in the series doesn't feel like a transition film or a "filler" film but an actual story that stands on its own. The story lags a little bit early on, but the film's final third is filled with adventure, wit, strong character development, surprising choices, and what is easily the best animated experience in theaters so far this year.
How to Train Your Dragon 3? Yes, please.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic