How To Train Your Sequel

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I’m a grown ass man that loves cartoons. No other time in history has that been more okay. Forget the Disney Renaissance, I think that we are currently experiencing the greatest period of animated films in the hundred or so years that animation has been on screen (this year marks the 100th anniversary of Gertie the Dinosaur, precursor to the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies and Oswald). In the last five years alone we’ve had Up, The Secret of Kells, and Coraline (2009); Toy Story 3, How To Train Your Dragon, and Despicable Me (2010); Rango (2011); Wreck-It Ralph and Brave (2012); Frozen, The Croods, and The Wind Rises (2013). Of those, I count eight of them as classics.

There’s been plenty of riff-raff released too, but above is a stretch of films that I’d proudly display on a shelf and rewatch. And this year, you can add one more to the list. Yes, I’m talking about How To Train Your Dragon 2, which hit theaters this past weekend. What’d I think of this film? In a word: sturdy. The story is endearing and captivating. The characters, even more so.

I don’t think it’s a fluke that animated movies are getting better and better. The process of making an animated film is so different, and so much more intensive, than that of a live-action movie. Check out this old interview with John Lassiter and Steve Jobs to see what I mean.

Granted, they’re talking about how it was twenty years ago, when much of the technology did not exist. But it still takes years to make these movies. Every scene is planned in detail long before animation begins. Stories are picked apart and rigorously tested by many different people. For a taste of what it’s like to write one of these movies, and how much a story can change, listen to Episode 128 of the Scriptnotes podcast where the hosts talk to Jennifer Lee, director of Frozen and co-writer of Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s a culture of story surrounding modern animation studios today. Dreamworks Animation has made a few clunkers over the years, but somewhere inside Jeffrey Katzenberg are the lessons he learned from his days running Disney’s film division. He’s a shrewd business man, but he is also building the foundations of a great storytelling studio. Of the last 14 movies, I’ve left the theater a happy customer seven times, a hit rate that’s been much better than in the past (in fact, the first Dreamworks movie that I didn’t hate or dismiss altogether was Kung Fu Panda).

Which brings me back to this weekend, and my experience with How To Train Your Dragon 2. It’s not a kids movie in my mind, in much the same way that many “Young Adult” novels aren’t for young people only. They both hit upon themes and stories that anyone with a brain and functional emotions can relate to. It’s a movie with characters I care about, visuals that thrill me, music that strikes an emotional chord, action that excites me, and a story that is moving.

I’m not going to spoil anything here, because it is well worth watching everything unfold without knowing what’s going to happen. The trailers ruin too much as it is. Suffice it to say, the sequel adheres to one of the cardinal rules of series writing, which is increasing the stakes. Everything that made the original a fun, emotional ride is taken up a notch. About a third of the way through I guessed one of the major plot reversals, but when it came it was no less impactful.

There’s a rhythm to these kinds of stories that writers break at their own peril. We may never see the likes of a David Lynch animated film, and that’s fine. A Lynch or a Paul Thomas Anderson do not make films that children can understand or enjoy. But you’d be making a mistake to assume that a movie like How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the reverse of that, a film that only kids can enjoy. A broad appeal does not always equal formless, generic storytelling. The form at work in HTTYD2 is familiar but not generic. It’s predictable, but never boring. It’s bright and energetic, but doesn’t pander. It simply clicks.

Am I guilty of being one of those “immature” adults for loving these movies? Maybe, but I don’t care. So far, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is my favorite movie this year.

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