The tone is dark, the stakes higher in this DreamWorks animated feature that is at heart a medieval war movie — if not 'Game of Thrones,' then 'Game of Dragones.'
Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux rarely — a closer estimate would be never — introduces a film’s creative personnel before a black-tie screening in the Grand Lumière theater. But he did so tonight, to pay tribute to DreamWorks Animation and its boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, celebrating 20 years as the man who birthed the Shrek, Madagascar and The Croods franchises and this evening’s world-premiere attraction How to Train Your Dragon 2, which opens in North America June 13th.
“Jeffrey is American animation,” Frémaux proclaimed, somehow forgetting that John Lasseter’s résumé as the animation honcho at Pixar and Disney includes Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL·E, Up, Toy Story 3 and Frozen. These were mammoth hits, critical successes and Oscar-winners all. The only original DreamWorks cartoon feature to receive the Academy Award was Shrek a dozen years ago.
There’s no question that Pixar, with its one-man one-film credo, may have won the quality race, but the DreamWorks movies — often fashioned by an army of writers, directors and animators under Katzenberg’s acute eye — developed the impish, parodic gestalt that has influenced a host of animated films, from Ice Age and Despicable Me to Wreck-It Ralph and The LEGO Movie.
Shrek, the first Hollywood-bred animated feature to have played in Cannes’s official selection since Disney’s Peter Pan in 1953, set the standard for a Katzenberg cartoon: snappy, zippy vaudeville. The DreamWorks ogres, zoo animals, cavemen, monsters and aliens are masters of shtick, avid custodians of pop-cultural references. The merry pranksters behind the screen will do anything for a laugh, and have reaped them — audience laughs and box-office bucks — by the billions.
Then there’s the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. The first movie, about the Viking kid Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who tames and raises a Night Fury dragon, nicknamed Toothless, as his Best Flying Friend, tried a different tone. Ithad a supporting cast of comedic voices — Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Craig Ferguson — but not much use for them. This was a boy-and-his-pet story; they grow up together, with much mutual learning and hugging and, from Toothless, slobbering kisses. The palette was darker, the mood occasionally somber, the moral less Looney Tunes than Lifetime. The first Dragon earned nearly $500 million dollars at the global box office, so here’s No. 2.
(READ: Corliss’s review of How to Train Your Dragon)
More serious by far, writer-director Dean DeBlois’ sequel is akin to The Empire Strikes Back or the second Lord of the Rings episode: a war movie with aching betrayals and heavy casualties. The comic roles of Hill, Wiig and Co. quickly take a back seat, as Dragon 2 expands the first movie’s universe from the medieval-fantasy kingdom of Berk to the wider world, where mortal dangers lurk not just for Hiccup and his pals but for all Vikings and their dragons. Nearly as fierce and brooding as Game of Thrones, this one will test the emotional resilience of its youngest viewers. Call it Game of Dragones.
Hiccup (still voiced by Baruchel but looking more like the young Jake Gyllenhaal) is now the choice of his dad-King Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) to assume the Berk peerage. But Hiccup still has a lot of kid in him: he wants to pursue the game of aerial drag-racing, or dragon-racing. “With Vikings on the backs of dragons,” he boasts, “the world just got a whole lot bigger.”
Too big for the comfort and security of his homeland. A crew of pirates leads Hiccup to the land of the evil Drago Bludvist (visualized as a muscle-bound Klaus Kinski and voiced by Djimon Hounsou). Drago’s deadliest weapon: a ski-slope-tusked dinosaur called the Bewilderbeast. Drago’s black magic has transformed this calm creature into the Alpha Dragon, whose power may be greater than the hundreds of flying beasts Hiccup can summon.
If you’ve seen DreamWorks’ promotional featurette for the movie — and if you haven’t, or want nothing spoiled, then skip the next two paragraphs — you know that Hiccup’s mother Valma, missing and presumed dead in the first Dragon, is alive and flourishing as the den mother of a sanctuary for lost, escaped or abused dragons. Voiced by Cate Blanchett, Valma is Galadriel, Jane Goodall and a Greenpeace activist in one elegant package. As Hiccup mutters, “It’s not every day you find out your mother is some crazy feral dragon lady.”
But melodrama giveth, and melodrama, even in cartoon form, can taketh away. Be warned that one core member of the Dragon family will be mesmerized into killing another core member. We will say no more except to imagine out loud that E.T. had suddenly gone rabid — and to add that Dragon 2 is a very odd movie to be opening on Father’s Day Weekend.
Hi again. All this clan-imosity climaxes with a David-and-Goliath smackdown between the one-legged Hiccup and the one-armed Drago — finally involving the one-tusked Alpha Dragon. The fighting and the family ructions may prove too intense for wee viewers. Too bad, because the movie’s luscious 3-D palette, overseen by creative consultant and master cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a wonder of bright creatures popping out of or soaring into sepulchral places.
If Dragon 1 served as the trainer wheels for a more complex DreamWorks tone, Dragon 2 is a fully mature DreamWorks 2.0.