I don’t watch a lot of Western animation. Most of it does nothing for me, a lot of it irritates me. My general grumpiness and cynicism mean the strings of my heart remain firmly untuggable. I despise musical numbers in movies, I can’t abide by dancing mascots and animals must have a valid reason to talk. Even the first HTTYD movie had left me largely underwhelmed, even though it was, arguably, the first successful dragon-franchise since Dragonheart (let’s not mention Eragon), and even though it largely inspired the relationship between Bran and Emrys. In short, I am definitely not the right target for those sorts of movies.
So, after all that is said, it may seem a faint and indeed damning praise for me to say that HTTYD 2 (or “Draktranaren” as it’s called here in Sweden) is probably the best Hollywood animated movie I’ve seen in years, certainly since the best since Wall-E. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much watching anything produced by either Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks – and I’ll try to explain why in these three points:
Much is always said every time Disney decides to create a heroine somewhat different to their usual Princess line, or put them in a situation or relationship other than Princess vs Prince, or man vs woman. But no Disney woman, not Merida, not Elsa, not even Mulan, have ever gotten close to the level of the epic bad-assery shown in the opening scenes with HTTYD2’s main female character, voiced by Cate Blanchett struggling with what, I think, is supposed to be a Slavic accent.
In fact, Valka is at the moment probably my favourite female character in all of recent Hollywood output (I haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet), precisely because the movie makers manage to retain that crucial, and difficult balance between strong and weak (wrongly called “manly” and “womanly”) traits that make a character three-dimensional instead of paper, and that make Valka a real, complex female instead of a man in drag; and also, because the script writers refrain from any moralizing in presenting her and her life: Valka is who she is, unashamedly and with only a (realistic) hint of self-doubt, and both the audience and other characters have no choice but to accept that.
True, it’s been argued that she suffers from Trinity Syndrome later in the movie, but I disagree with this assessment: HTTYD2 is not an ensemble cast movie, it’s a movie about Hiccup, his friends, and their adventures, so naturally everyone else must eventually be overshadowed by the protagonist and the plot; and the first hour of Valka’s presence more than makes up for the script’s later short-comings in my mind.
And that’s even without getting into Astrid, who, in a side-plot crucial to the main story, does her own thing, becoming at some point a much more capable and active protagonist than even Hiccup, and proving that, eventually, she’ll become much more than just a “chieftain’s wife”; and without mentioning Ruffnut, who, though largely a comic relief, does things in the movie that no Western animated female character has ever, to my memory, done before.
2) Serious plot, serious threats
HTTYD2 is that rare, in the West, breed of an animated movie: neither a fairy-tale, nor a comedy – though there’s plenty of laughs thrown in; a true fantasy movie, though still aimed for a younger audience.
What we have established in the first movie, despite its much more childish outlook, was that the Vikings of Berk are real Vikings, not fairy-tale ones. They fight, they loot, they kill, they get hurt, and they die. This sequel, moving on five years, deals with young and old adults, instead of kids, and the situations they’re in, despite some comic relief, are serious and truly threatening.
And though Hiccup retains his resolve to change his people and his world, we are shown clearly how difficult it is, and how no amount of “power of love” or some other sentimental invention, can change everyone, everywhere – because Hiccup’s world, despite the presence of dragons and some clockwork-punk technology, is not a fairy-tale.
3) Treating the audience as (young) adults
Tied to the above, HTTYD2 never stoops to patronize its audience. It’s lacking all the paraphernalia that render Western animation unwatchable for me – as mentioned above; the characters don’t burst randomly into song and dance (except one scene, which makes narrative sense, though it’s a bit too long for me, and a blatant shot at the Oscars nomination). No animals or inanimate objects speak, and not even the largest and smartest of dragons utter any discernible words.
Since the main characters are 20 years old already, this is not a “coming of age” or “character development” movie – another rare; Hiccup is an almost fully formed human being, Astrid even more so; all they need is just a confirmation of themselves and their life choices, rather than discovering them from scratch. This, too, is a rare thing.
But most important of all, the characters ACT like real, adult human beings. Not only is there plenty of proper violence (though wierdly bloodless – a compromise, I’m guessing, aimed at getting a PG rating, though what 10-year old can comprehend the movie’s plot and still be squeamish about blood, is beyond me) but there is more than a hint of s.e.x. and budding sexuality, both male and female, even if played largely for laughs, is shown as a perfectly normal thing.
The relationships shown are so natural and realistic, it’s almost shocking. When a 3D-animated character appears on the screen, you’re expecting some level of cliches and simplifications; it’s part of the package. But the scenes between Astrid and Hiccup could not be more real if they were played by live actors – even despite the still glaring drawbacks of 3D animation and DreamWorks in-house character design style, which I’m not terribly fond of.
HTTYD2 is not a movie without its flaws, naturally. Most of them concerning the plot. It’s a bit too long – not in terms of time, but in terms of pacing – though that’s my complain about all recent movies; the plot is rather disjointed, especially near the end, and there’s quite a few “but what about…?” moments (though not as many as in, say, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). But these are just nitpicks in a movie that’s so overwhelmingly superior in almost every other aspect compared to its immediate competition.