Over the past week, I’ve been trying to convince several film publicists that viewing a movie over my computer via a “secure link” is somewhat less than optimal, and not what the filmmaker intended. I grant that my big-screen TV may also be slightly less than what was hoped for, but it does come a lot closer. Presentation matters. And that was made incredibly clear to me when I finally saw the entirety of How to Train Your Dragon 2.
As you may recall, I saw the first hour of the film in 2D, at Wondercon, after a short night’s sleep, a long walk in the hot sun and a wait in line outside the theater. Last week, I got to see the full film in 3D, and it was like a whole new thing. Scoff at 3D if you will, but when you see a movie that was actually conceived for it done right, it’s at least as important as seeing a movie uncensored, or in its correct aspect ratio.
As much as 3D detracted from, say, Man of Steel, so does it enhance How to Train Your Dragon 2. Call it How to Train Your Cranky Elders That 3D is Good Sometimes.
Diverging even further away from the books upon which the series is very loosely based, HTTYD 2 skips ahead a few years, avoiding any conflicts with the TV series, to our heroic Hiccup at age 20, adapting quite well to having lost part of his leg, but not so much to the notion that he’s going to be chief of his Viking village someday soon. At two decades of age, he’s not even yet married to longtime girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), which seems like leaving things pretty late in Viking terms, by which he’d be middle-aged.
Even though he’s now a hero and everybody wants him to join in all their dragon games, Hiccup and his pet dragon Toothless are content to venture out alone, mapping the known world beyond the borders they’re familiar with. It’s good for a bit of soul-searching, as well as a chance to test out Hiccup’s steampunk-style wing suit for gliding, but eventually leads to trouble, when they discover dragon-trapper Eret son of Eret (Kit Harington), who’s working for a charming fellow named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is, of course, a benevolent philanthropist…JUST KIDDING! His name is Drago and his last name is a misspelled version of “blood fist.” What do you think he’s going to be like?
On the plus side, as the trailers have already amply revealed. Hiccup rediscovers his lost-believed-dead mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), who’s establishing a secret dragon preserve under the watchful, gigantic eyes of the Bewilderbeast, a kaiju-sized snow dragon that breathes freezing ice winds rather than fire. She has already pissed off Drago by freeing the creatures he subdued by force, and Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) has an old grudge against the bad guy, so war seems inevitable. But alone among his people, Hiccup thinks he can reason with Drago, and that just talking to him and showing him how humans and dragons can be friends, he’ll change his mind. He’s basically the Republican caricature of a Democratic president, only his fate is more predetermined – this wouldn’t be much of an action movie if talking it out actually worked.
Director Dean DeBlois has called this movie The Empire Strikes Back of a proposed trilogy, but that’s a bit misleading. For one thing, this movie can be enjoyed just fine in a vacuum, and it ends conclusively without a cliffhanger. What it does have in common is a heightened sense of stakes (there is a definite “shit just got real” moment), a period of time where our main heroes separate into two separate groups, a suddenly not-dead parent, and a continuation of the theme that “size matters not.” Additionally, handicap matters not – Hiccup will likely be a great role for actual amputee children, though he’s no less of one to everyone else as well. The only storylines left unresolved are the movie’s brief dalliances with young romance – Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) is lusted over by both Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) but only has eyes for bicep-heavy Eret. Presumably she’ll choose her man in part 3.
So why does the 3D matter? It’s not just a plus in scenes where dragons swoop through the sky, but is crucial to establishing a sense of scale – you see just how small Hiccup and Toothless are (and feel) in the face of a much larger canvas. Later, when Stoick and Drago do battle in the foreground while two kaiju go at it behind them, the tricks of perspective that make the Vikings look bigger and more important than they’d otherwise be as antlike creatures underfoot is an important stylistic choice, enhanced when actual depth can be added.
The How to Train Your Dragon movies are rare examples of Americans learning from anime without copying it – all too often we get the reverse, with big eyes and angular features substituting for story and character. Hiccup and friends don’t look like the Japanese cartoon style in any way, but they are drawn in a comedic, exaggerated fashion while being placed into an adventure that overall is anything but. My personal preference would be for something more realistic, even live-action, but it is what it is, and the story still ultimately sucked me in. I think it’s in danger of being a tad overrated – ultimately, it’s still a pretty standard chosen-one/underdog hero formula – but there’s no denying it’s fun, and it’s diverse enough that people can’t complain it doesn’t have enough women (plus it has a Latina playing a Scandinavian – color-blind casting!). About that supposedly gay character, though…that whole thing hinges on how you interpret one vaguely worded line about him being unmarried. The film never says he is or isn’t.
It’s enough to make me believe that maybe the time is now for Disney to try The Black Cauldron again, and do it right this time.