How to Train your Dragon 2 (2014)

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.” – Valka

this movie never ceases to amaze me…

Four years passed between the first How to Train Your Dragon (which I reviewed here) and the second movie. Given how much I loved the first one, you would think I would have been the first person in line to watch this. I am sad to say that I didn’t see this movie until it came out to BluRay, and I can’t for the life of me remember why (and don’t you worry, I’m making up for it with the third one).

Some people might say that four years between sequels is too long, that you’ve lost your audience. The world does seem to be in this “let’s churn movies out as fast as we can and hope they’re good” phase, so it’s refreshing to see Dreamworks take this franchise so seriously.

I do have to note that for this review and all subsequent reviews moving forward, I will no longer be giving a synopsis. I may mention parts of the story, but the whole point of a review isn’t to recite the movie, it’s to examine the movie. As such, let’s break down this one, shall we?

Let me start by asking a question: What’s the point of a sequel?

To a studio, the answer might seem simple: Money. You have already established characters re-emerging into the world every few years to sell tickets, merchandise, etc. 

As a movie-goer and a fan, you love these characters and what to see more of them. There’s a story that hasn’t been told yet. You want to delve deeper into the world that the director, producer, and screenwriter have spent so much time on. You’ve invested yourself with this world so much that it begins to feel real, and what happens to them becomes utmost importance (come on, who wasn’t sad at the end of Return of the King??)

if you didn’t cry during this moment you are dead to me.

Thank god for this movie, Dean DeBlois was on our side. The Director/writer of this movie, as well as the other two installments, viewed this sequel as a stepping stone to a much bigger story. In his mind, this was always a trilogy, and actually refused to be attached to the franchise unless he was given the freedom to tell the story how he wanted. He viewed these movies much like Star Wars. In fact, he used The Empire Strikes Back as a tonal model for this movie, which is… well, that’s kinda cool.

So does this sequel do what it set out to do? Is it not only a good sequel, but a good movie? Let’s find out

Characters

As I’ve said before in many of my reviews, a movie can have a really horrible plot, but as long as the characters are good, I’ll like it. Characters to me are one of the most important aspects of a movie. Their behavior, their relationships and their interactions with one another affect so much of the movie. If one part isn’t believable, the whole movie won’t be believable.

So in a sequel, I expect a few things in terms of characters:

1. continue the relationships set up in the first movie

2. continue to give good side characters their spot, we learn more about them and even grow to consider them as important as the main characters

3. introduce a FEW good, new characters with the same quality as the original characters (but please don’t overload us with so many new characters we can’t remember their names!).

One of the best things about the first movie was the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless. We saw its start in the first movie through a mutual respect and understanding that they both needed each other. In this movie, it’s just gotten five years stronger. Hiccup is still that sarcastic, independent viking, still willing to do something crazy if he thinks its the right thing to do, and Toothless is along to save him and remind him with ear slaps and tail whips that not all his ideas are smart.

Hiccup has grown up five years too (Hellloooo animation longbottom-ing!), and with that has come a lot of new knowledge in the realm of dragons (including his awesome sword coated with Monstrous Nightmare gel, Zippleback gas, his new flight suit and some upgrades to Toothless’s harness as well. He also must deal with a whole slew of new personal conflicts, and this takes front and center throughout the movie as we follow the external conflict that is Drago and the dragon trappers.

His father wants him to become chief, a position he thinks he can’t live up to and says very early in the movie “it’s not [him].” It’s the typical Young Adult mindset: a life of being bogged down with responsibility on Berk, or a life of carefree exploring the world on the back of a dragon, discovering new species and new lands.

It’s only through the external conflicts of the movie that he learns exactly what being a “chief” means and where his place truly lies. It’s an amazing storyline for our lead character and done extremely well.

Toothless is still as lovable as ever. Now as an older dragon knowing who he can trust, he and Hiccup really do think and act as one. They could have made Toothless more serious in this installment, with the severity of the storyline, but they didn’t. In some sense, they made him a good chunk of the comic relief in this movie, but it’s done in a subtle and very tactile way, the same as the first movie. The comedy comes from Toothless’s own lovable, loyal, carefree personality, and here, he really shines. 

This entire post could have been Toothless GIFs and I wouldn’t have been sorry…

Like Hiccup, Toothless ends the movie on a higher pedestal than he started, but it suits him. I really enjoy the fact that we learn along with toothless some of the abilities he really has.

I will talk more about the relationship between the two a bit later. But first, onto some other characters. 

Stoick, the chief of Berk and Hiccup’s father, really grew on me in this movie. In the first, he was painted as a bit of a villain – unforgiving, not willing to listen to his son, desperate to try and connect with a boy who he didn’t feel a connection to, who only had one thing on his mind (to find and kill the dragons). In this movie, he has changed into a man who really feels a connection to his son, his island and his people and the dragons that inhabit it. Although half of the movie he’s literally chasing after his son and his “bullheadedness,” he’s doing it to try and keep him safe. He’s using his wisdom of the situation and his experience with the villain, Drago, to try and talk some sense into his son. In this case, he’s completely right, but mistakes have to be made to grow, and well, maybe this mistake was the biggest of all.

Astrid and the gang (Gobber, Ruffnut, Tuffnut, Snotlout, and Fishlegs) are back in this movie, and this time they come along with dragons of their own. Though obviously not as explored as the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, you get the feeling these guys care just as much about their dragons (and the Netflix Series: Race to the Edge solidifies this). With the exception of Astrid, the others lend for a lot of the comedy and teen banter in this movie, which can either hit right on or fall short. I believe it really takes the right person in the right mood to appreciate Ruffnut and Tuffnut.

Snotlout & Hookfang
Ruff & Tuff with Barf and Belch
Fishlegs & Meatlug
Astrid & Stormfly

As far as Astrid and Hiccup go, they are obviously in a relationship and have been for who knows how long since the first movie, but it takes a backseat to everything else that is going on. Which is the way it should be. They get a great scene together in the beginning, where it is obvious that they love and respect one another. It’s a REAL relationship, and I’m here for it. It’s what I would expect from Astrid. She’s a strong enough character that she would never sit there and pine for a guy. Instead, she goes off, does her own thing, gives him her advice, and supports him when he needs it. They adore each other. It’s the best.

In terms of new characters, there’s really only two (other than the villain) worth mention. The first is Eret, a dragon trapper turned dragon rider by the end of the movie. He works for Drago and voiced by Kit Harrington, which took me way longer to figure out than it should have. He’s charged with floating around on a boat and hunting dragons to bring back for Drogo’s “Dragon Army.” Hiccup and Astrid discover him while they’re out exploring, and Astrid and the gang end up kidnapping him later to get him to lead them to Drogo’s hideout, which they think is where Hiccup is (spoilers, he’s not).

Astrid’s dragon, Stormfly, takes a strange liking to Eret, eventually going so far as to risk her life for him in Drogo’s camp. It’s only then that he realizes maybe what Hiccup and Astrid first told him might be true. Eret is a likable guy and has a good story arc. I can’t wait to see what they do with him in the third movie.

Fun fact: Astrid tells Eret “don’t you know anything?” when they get into Drago’s camp. This line was specifically put in there because of Kit Harrington’s “you know nothing Jon Snow.”

The other new, and much more important, addition to the story is Hiccup’s Mother, Valka. We don’t hear much about her in the first movie other than a quick mention about how Stoick made Hiccups viking hat out of the other half of her breast plate (keeps her close, you know). While trying to track down Drogo, Hiccup “accidentally” runs into her atop her dragon, Cloudjumper.

This is an incredibly beautifully animated scene

Turns out, she and Hiccup have a lot more in common than he ever could have guessed. She’s spent the last 20 years after being taken by Cloudjumper learning about dragons and saving them from Drogo’s traps. Through her, we learn about a number of new dragons, including the rare Alpha species, a huge dragon who protects all of the smaller dragons. She knows so much about dragons that it puts Hiccup’s abilities to shame. She knows exactly how old Toothless is, shows how he can make tight turns, knows he might be the last of his kind, etc.

Valka is voiced by Cate Blanchett, who apparently was the only choice for the roll. I think she does a good job. Valka is an extremely interesting character. She’s calm but forceful. She has been away from people for so long you can tell she’s nervous when Stoick and Gobber show up. She finds more in common with the dragons and even mirror’s Stoick’s words of “we have to protect our own” to Hiccup, while referring to the dragons. 

For Hiccup, Valka represents one of the choices he can make. She invites him to stay with her and save the dragons, which at first very much appeals to him. But he is both his mother AND his father, and his want and need to speak to Drogo makes it difficult for him to just give up and “protect his own,” without trying to stop the problem at the source. You have to give him credit for that, even if it goes horribly wrong.

Valka’s existence is found out by Stoick and Gobber, leading to a short but very memorable few scenes between the two of them. For a few brief hours, Hiccup had a family, and she had agreed to return to Berk.

Now onto Drago. Voiced by Dijimon Hounsou, Drago is a man who believes dragons are the way to rule the world, or as Hiccup so wonderfully puts it. “You need dragons to rule people.” He has spent who knows how long amassing a dragon army, built upon the idea of fear.

I’m not going to lie, the first time I watched this, i squealed a little when we first actually saw him interact with our heroes’ dragons, because it mirrors the “old” ideas of dog and horse training vs. the newer methods (oh yeah, I’m a dog trainer, have I ever mentioned that?). After learning so much about how Hiccup got the relationship with Toothless in the first movie, Drago is a complete contrast. He scares the dragons into doing his bidding. He isn’t scared by their fire or their tactics, and just keeps coming at them until they are subdued. 

Why is he like this? we really don’t know. He’s missing an arm, so you get the feeling that this is all payback for what they did for him. He wears what looks like a night fury cloak around him, which also begs the question if he’s the reason they’re supposed to be extinct. He’s an imposing, scary man, so much so that he himself has his own Alpha who will do his bidding. Upon defeating Valka’s Alpha (sorry, spoilers), he orders his Alpha to take control of all the other dragons (including Toothless!!) to go after Berk. 

There’s no reason for him doing this. And this is where I would argue he’s actually the weakest character in the whole movie. There’s no room for growth, no story arc, he’s just a bad man who at the end learns that loyalty and respect is better than fear and control. Still a good lesson, but eh, I feel they could have made him more interesting.

Ok, so real quick, back to Hiccup and Toothless. When it comes to their relationship, I could write an entire entry on that alone, but all I need to do is talk about a scene near the end of the movie, and you get how strong it is. And that’s the scene where Hiccup attempt to talk toothless out of his trance-like state that Drago and his Alpha have put him in. 

Diogo said it was impossible. Valka said it was impossible, but it happened. Hiccup was able to talk Toothless out of his trance and challenge the Alpha. Just. Wow. THAT explains how strong their relationship is, and you believe it because of everything else that has happened in this movie and the previous one. 

LOOK AT HOW HAPPY HE IS!!!

These characters, on the whole, are amazing. Do they fulfill the three things that I believe sequels should touch on?

1. continue the relationships set up in the first movie?   Yes, all in realistic, better, and continuously believable ways.

2. continue to give good side characters their spot, we learn more about them and even grow to consider them as important as the main characters?  They did this hit or miss. You certainly learn more about Astrid and Stoick, whereas I would argue the others retain their “comedic” undertones from the first movie. Still enjoyable.

3. introduce a FEW good, new characters with the same quality as the original characters? Yes. Love Eret and Valka, Drago is meh, but better than the first movie’s strange Red Death dragon.

Story

Ok, so I’m not going to do a synopsis of the storyline, but what do I think of the story overall? does this storyline do what sequels SHOULD do? more importantly, what is that, really?

A sequel shouldn’t just be another story with the same characters. I really believe it should be a continuation. There should be an overarching story between all the volumes. Whether conceived before the first movie/book came out or decided upon after seeing how successful the first movie/book was, both can be executed well if the storytellers remember there is ONE story to tell.

I already mentioned how Dean DeBlois has said in interviews that he looked to Empire Strikes Back when he conceived the rest of this storyline. So for all intensive purposes, let’s look at this story with that aspect in mind. Empire might be one of THE BEST SEQUELS of all time, but why? And did DeBlois actually use it to inspire him? Let’s look at a few key points.

  1. We’ve already talked about characters, but it’s worth mentioning in here that this movie, like Empire, really kept to its same core characters while introducing a few (not numerous) new ones, and hey, we even have a parent reveal in both. hah.
  2. Part of what makes Empire so great is it’s 3 acts: Good guys win, good guys lose, good guys win again. Does this follow that?
  3. Are the storylines hard to follow? Are there any that are extraneous, or are they all needed?

Let’s look at #2, because this is an interesting one. You would think at first glance that How to Train Your Dragon 2 does not follow this outline AT ALL. I mean, come on, the bad guy is defeated, the dragons are freed, Hiccup is Chief, Toothless is Alpha, how is that following the outline put forth in #2 at all?? 

It’s not. I would have said that all the way up until writing this. Then I thought about it more and I realized something: This movie wouldn’t even have happened if Hiccup hadn’t insisted that he go talk to Drago and “fix” this whole thing. Drago might have never found Berk, or at least it might have been years before he floated that way. He seemed surprised at the mention of the place, like there was nothing worth anything there. If Hiccup hadn’t gone off, his father would have never died.

This whole movie is about Hiccup making mistakes. If he hadn’t done what he did, Berk would still be hidden and safe, unknown to any of the dragon trappers or hunters out there. By doing what he did, he put Berk on the map. He made them a target. Even though they defeated Drago, he still lost. He lost his father, he lost the innocence of childhood, and he was disillusioned to a whole heck of a lot, like you can’t change everyone. He and Berk Lost.

But you can’t do that in a kids movie, so let’s make it all happy in the end. yay!

Alright, now when it comes to my point #3 about extraneous storylines, this one is quick: no, there aren’t any extraneous storylines. You’re really only following two, and for a short time three storylines: one with Hiccup and Toothless and then Valka, one with Astrid and the gang and Eret, and for a short while you have Stoick and Gobber searching after Hiccup. Nothing is hard to follow. It’s all needed, and it all brings about different aspects of the story leading to the climax very well. Something these movies is very good at is giving its viewers information in a subtle way and having it pay off in the end (babies aren’t controlled by the alpha, every dragon has its secrets, etc). There is nothing in this movie that is fluff. Except maybe Ruffnut pining over Eret.

This scene made for the best sound editing in the entire movie and made me laugh way too hard.

All in all, great story for a sequel. Not just another romp with the same characters. In this one, they have things to lose, and they do.

Animation/Score/Etc

To finish up some last technical bits of this review, I want to talk about the animation, score, and just stupid small things that I notice, because it’s fun.

I’ve always enjoyed the style that dreamworks picked for this series. It’s realistic to the point that you think that this really could have taken place in the world we live in, but cartoon-y enough to appeal to everyone. The backgrounds expand with this one to different islands, snow, ice, etc. and it’s well done. 

The dragons, including the new additions, are well designed. I love cloudjumpers look with his four wings and his owl-like face. The Alphas are beautiful, and the other newer dragons are all so unique that i can only assume all the animators had a blast designing these guys.

In terms of the music and the score, there are only a few movies that I watch where I get the score stuck in my head for weeks upon end, and both the first movie in this series and this movie are some of them. The score is beautifully written and matches the action and fun and intensity that this movie can have. It can help make us cry when they’re sending Stoick out on his ship, and make us root for Toothless when he’s flying among the clouds.

Final Thoughts that don’t belong anywhere else

  • I would watch a sitcom with Stoick, Valka, Hiccup, Gobber, and the two dragons. That would be some hilarious stuff right there.
  • I still don’t understand why both Fishlegs and Snotlout were going after Ruffnut. Are pickings really that slim on Berk?
  • It’s hard to watch this movie after watching Netflix’s Race to the Edge because while that show did an amazing job tying in some things, there is just so much more that doesn’t make sense!!

All in all, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one helluva ride. I enjoyed it more than the first one, and it’s one of those movies I could watch over and over again without getting sick of it. It’s not just a great sequel,  it’s a great movie.

I give How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) a 4.8 out of 5. Solid entertainment.

Up Next: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)*

Note: I’m going to see Hidden World tomorrow 3 weeks early! Will try to get a review of that one up as soon as I can!!! 

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Spirited Away (2001)

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Zeniba: Now, try to remember as much as you can about your old life.

Chihiro: For some reason, I can remember Haku… from a long time ago… but I thought I never met him before!

Zeniba: Oh, that’s a wonderful place to start! Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.

We’ve all been there at some point in our lifetimes. that moment when we have to leave the place we call home and travel somewhere new. For many of us, this uprooting first happens as a child. we’re taken away from our school and our friends and thrust into a new situation where nothing is familiar and we know absolutely no one. Whatever confidence we might have said is taken away, and the fear of the unknown becomes the only thing we think about. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The idea of moving is the frame in the story of Spirited Away. Set in present day Japan, it centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who is moving from one town to another with her parents, and is not too happy about it. On the way to their new house, they get lost, go through a tunnel, and find themselves in what they think is an abandoned amusement park. They snoop around and find food cooking, and her parents begin to eat, thinking the park is still open and they can just pay when the cook gets back. Chihiro goes off to look around, finds a bath house, and watches as the sun sets. This suddenly transforms the place from abandoned to teaming with life, although not the life that Chihiro and her parents are used to. This is a place for the spirits of Japan to gather. It is a place to eat the food and visit the bath house, stay, and refresh after a hard day. She returns to tell her parents to go, only to find pigs in their place. After a few strange encounters, she makes a deal with the witch who runs the bath house, Yubaba, and gets a job at the bath house so she can keep an eye on her parents and figure out how to change them back. She gets to know the bath house’s employees, patrons, and has very strange adventures, all leading up to a test that Yubaba gives her in order to return home and turn her parents back into humans.

I will be honest. This is one strange movie. that being said, it’s also so engaging in its uniqueness that you can’t help but be drawn into this world and what this little girl is going through. Every individual looks different. Every spirit and its design is unique; some are noticeably based on real Japanese spirits, while others I couldn’t place. The animation is amazing. The characters are strange and wonderful at the same time. They are memorable not only for their personalities but their designs. This is another thing that Miyazaki does well: he is so creative that sometimes it makes my head hurt. The fact that this man can come up with so many movies that are so different is something that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ve heard that everyone has at least one story in them worth telling. Well… Miyzaki has like twenty of them. This one definitely takes the cake for the MOST original. As such, it is the most unique and most strange.

It is also the most Japanese of his movies. Princess Mononoke and Totoro are as well, but this one… i dunno, it almost feels more Japanese. Each spirit represents something, whether it be a river, vegetable, or belief. The idea of the bath house in general is very Japanese. The clothes are Japanese. The animation is very Japanese. I think maybe that’s why westerners like this movie: It gives an idea of Japanese culture and beliefs through this strange story that they may not understand, but love it because it’s unique and has characters that are so mezmerising and deep and they are immersed into this world that is so unbelievable but so engaging at the same time.

Let’s start talking about some of these great characters. Our protagonist is a young girl named Chihiro. I have to admit, I’m actually not a fan of her. At least at the beginning. I think that’s actually the point, but oh my goodness is she a whiny little brat. She needs help with everything. She whines whenever she opens her mouth. She has no confidence whatsoever. You can tell she’s smart, and she has it in her to be confident, but she for whatever reason cannot access it. Essentially that is what this movie about. It’s about a girl discovering what she’s capable of and pushing herself to the brink for those she cares about.

She is, as Miyazaki does so well, a wonderful representation of a child. She’s innocent and naive. She almost assumes the best out of everyone (the character of No Face as well as Haku are a good examples of that). She’s not drawn into such “adult” matters as believing rumors or greed. Instead, she knows that some people are trying to help her, and that is enough reason for her to trust them and love them. She sees a character standing out in the rain and assumes the best of him and leaves a door open. She’s a kid. There is no reason for her to think ill of anyone unless they do her harm.

She is also a strong female character. If anything, she shows the progression so well INTO a strong character that in some aspects, she might be the best one Miyazaki’s ever written. The transformation she goes through is amazing. She goes from a whining little brat who has issues asking anyone for help or telling anyone what she needs (instead of asking) to being a girl who can stand up to a monster that everyone else is afraid of, and going on a journey to an “evil” witch’s house to save the person she cares about. She grows and changes so much during her time in the bath house that at the end of the movie she is almost unrecognizable.

There are a lot of characters in this movie. Most have smaller parts, but many help Chihiro on her path. One of these, possibly the most important, is Haku. He is a spirit (he can shape shift from a man to a dragon – his dragon is beautiful) who forgets his real name and can’t find his way home. He explains to Chihiro that this is part of the way the witch Yubaba controls you – she takes your name. She does to Chihiro, turning her into Sen. The longer you’re at the bath house, the more you forget. He almost acts as her friend, confidant and mentor through the movie. he saves her from disappearing into nothingness when she first arrives, and he’s the one who tells her what to do to keep herself from getting in trouble with Yubaba. He looks out for her, and as a result their bond is very strong. It’s one that is remarked on having existed since before she got there (“I’ve known you since you were very young” he says to her at one point). 

At the same time, Haku is also Yubaba’s “henchman.” Sen (I’ll refer to her as that from now on considering she goes through most of the movie being called that) even at one point asks another character if there’s two Hakus. He’s charged with doing Yubaba’s dirty work, according the the other characters, and he’s someone you can’t trust.

This is kinda who I was talking about when I mentioned rumors up above. Whether they are true or not (they kinda are – Haku does end up in trouble because of a mission he was on for Yubaba), Sen doesn’t care. She knows he helped her, and she’s willing to look past all that because she knows deep down he’s a good person. If someone asked her why, could she explain? I have no idea – probably not, but she doesn’t care. She knows he’s good, and is willing to do anything for him. That’s more than a lot of us could do. Because you’re following Sen during this, you almost get the feeling from Haku that he does these things because he has to – because Yubaba essentially owns him. He doesn’t remember his name or his home. What else could he do?

The most trying part of Sen and Haku’s relationship comes when she finds him hurt, having been the recipient of a curse from Yubaba’s sister, Zaniba. He was sent there by Yubaba to steal her magic seal, and as a result she cursed him. To save him, Sen journeys out to Zaniba’s to return the seal and finds that her love of him cured Haku of his curse. It’s pure love. It’s the love of a child, and it is unbelievable to watch.

Let’s talk about our “antagonist” for a moment – the witch Yubaba. First of all, her character design is nothing like you’ve ever seen. She’s got an amazingly huge head, giant eyes, and you can see literally every wrinkle on her face. She is unbelievable. Put that awesome design aside, you have a strange, zany, almost crazy witch who runs the bath house. She cares about making her patrons happy, is upset that Sen’s parents ate the spirits’ food, and acted accordingly. She has no reason to view humans as her friends, and is incredibly smart and tricky. Like Lady Eboshi in Mononoke, I have a real problem calling her a “villain.” Yeah, she’s causing trouble for our main character because of what she did to her parents, but you can see why. We hear about what she’s doing/done to Haku, and as a character she does seem a bit “shifty,” (she leaves on strange missions and has her accomplices patrol the bath house area), but you never actually find out why she’s going out, why she’s patrolling, or even why she wanted her sister’s magic seal. You kinda get the feeling when Sen gets to Zaniba’s that it’s literally just a sibling fight. Nothing more. So while some of the characters (and certainly our main one) view her as a villain, I don’t know if calling her one is fair to her. She’s running a business, wants to protect it and the other spirits, and has an extreme weak spot when it comes to her gigantic infant child (yeah… that kid is just.. yeah.). I do think she has it in her to be evil, but in the amount of time we have with her and in her dealings with Sen, we don’t really see too much.

There’s three more sort of important characters I want to touch on. The first is Lin, who acts almost as Sen mother/friend in the bath house. She’s her partner on jobs they have to do, and is in charge with showing her the ropes. As a character she’s very abrasive, opinionated, but at the same time does feel sorry for Sen and does show a bit of compassion when she’s missing her parents and dealing with Haku. She also acts as our entrance to the bath house life, which is like a whole ecosystem in itself. We learn how things work through her, and Sen learns a lot through her.

The second character is Kamaji, the boiler man. Again, super cool character design. He’s a skinny human-like character that has four pairs of arms with three fingers each, and a giant bushy mustache and huge sunglasses. He’s the person Sen first goes to to ask for a job before he sends her to Yubaba. But he gets her back, lying and saying its his granddaughter and that she’s tough. He understands the love she feels for Haku. He’s an interesting character, even if there’s not much to him. He heats the water for the bath house. (I do have to say though that his little soot sprites that throw the coal into the fire are so freaking cute/hilarious).

My last character that I want to talk about is No Face. This guy, again, could i guess technically be called a “villain,” but again I don’t know if that would be fair to him. He’s a strange black see through spirit wearing a white mask that is first seen outside the bath house by Sen. She sees him again when its raining and leaves the door open so he can come in out of the rain. Once in the bath house, though, he sees what happens when a rich patron pays a generous tip, and decides that gold is the way to get people to like him. He produces gold out of his hands to Sen, who does not want it. However everyone else goes into a frenzy. No sooner do they appease him, though, then he starts eating people, crying out that he wants Sen. I think her actions confuse him. Everyone else is crazy over gold, and here’s this girl who won’t have anything to do with it.

Anyway, Sen manages to get No Face out of the bath house, and he calms down, even regurgitating the people he had eaten and changing back from a monster to his original design. Sen exclaims that the bath house is bad for him, and he goes with her on their adventure to Zaniba’s, eventually staying there with her.

I’m not going to lie – I still don’t know if I know exactly what No Face is or what he’s supposed to represent. I’ll give it my best shot though, at least right now. What I think is that he represents are the embodiment of certain feelings we’re all prone to having: in the beginning, he’s the innate fear of being disliked. He’s shy, doesn’t talk, hangs outside the bath house. Once he learns what gets people excited and what gets people to like him, he acts upon it. But then once he is well liked, it goes to his head and he turns into a monster. We can’t all get exactly what we want all the time – it will always get to us and turn us into monsters. It’s only when we can distance ourselves form the things that are toxic that we can get back to ourselves and then be ok with ourselves. He’s the embodiment of fears that are so personal yet so universal to us all. Sen confuses him because she doesn’t appease his greed and monstrous personality. She, like most children, see him (and all of us) only for the good. It reminds him of what was good, and meeting Zaniba reaffirms that everyone has a place, and you’re ok being yourself. You don’t have to appease everyone all the time. Nor should you want to.

I dunno. Just my thoughts. I still haven’t figured it out. But then again, I dunno if we’re supposed to.

This animation is some of Studio Ghibli’s best. The bath house is beautiful. The detail in Yubaba’s office and rooms is incredible. I mentioned the character designs already. I don’t think anyone else in the world could have come up with this stuff. Miyazaki is truly one of a kind, and his attention to detail in every little thing, even landscapes, is unbelievable.

There is one scene in this movie that always makes me cry. Not because it’s sad, or even overly happy, but simply because of the animation. It is beautiful. It happens when Sen is going back to the bath house from Zaniba’s and she’s riding on top of Haku as a dragon. She wanted during the movie to help him with his problem (his name and his home), when it comes to her. she tells him that she remembered a time when she was little and lost her shoe in a river. she went in after it and almost drowned, but the river carried her to safety. Since then the river has been paved over, but she remembered the name of it: the Kohaku river. It is at this moment that Haku remembers. his scales give way and suddenly he’s a man again and the two of them are falling through the sky. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL.

I don’t really know what else to say about this movie. It’s the movie that introduced the world to Miyazaki, and went on to beat out Pixar and Monsters, Inc at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature (an honor I still completely agree with despite loving Monsters). Suddenly, Studio Ghibli was on the radar. And it’s been awesome ever since.

I give Spirited Away (2001) a 4.8 out of 5. I’m deducting a few bits of points because I’m still not sure about some of the stuff that happens. That might be the point, but I don’t know. It bugs me that I can’t figure parts of this movie out.

Next up: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

“Why read words when you can just kill the stuff the words tell you stuff about?”  – Snotlout

When this movie came out, I really had no desire to see it. Considering I literally jumped almost 10 years with Dreamworks, it is safe to say that for me, the animation company was losing it. A lot of people loved the Madagascars and Kung Fu Pandas, and I saw them, but to be honest they never really did anything for me. I don’t own them, although I have been meaning to give them another watch. I had kinda given up hope that Dreamworks would ever produce anything that I actually liked anymore.

So when How to Train Your Dragon came out, I didn’t see it in theaters. Then people started talking about it. I had at least three different friends say to me “Kate, you NEED to see this movie. You’d love it.” when lots of different people tell me that, that pretty much means that I have to give in and see the movie. Instead of just watching it, I threw it on my christmas list and let my relatives give it to me. I watched it and…. LOVED it. Absolutely. Like The Prince of Egypt, this movie is on my list of favorite movies. It’s one of the movies I watch when I’m sick, or really need a pick-me-up, and has been since it came out (that’s odd, bc typically i rotate to newer movies…) It’s very different, and it’s not perfect, but the things I love about it, I LOVE.

This movie is loosely (and from what I’ve read, VERY loosely) based on a children’s book by the same name by british author Cressida Cowell published in 2003. The book is the first in a very intense looking group of children’s books (she’s been publishing at least 1 a year for the last ten years). I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit interested in reading these.

Anyway, the movie is based around our protagonist, Hiccup, who is a viking who lives on the island of Berk. As is explained in the first few minutes of the movie, the vikings here have dragons as their pests, and have to do their best to keep them from eating their sheep and destroying their town. This involves fighting them. We’re introduced to a lot of the species of dragons, as well as Hiccup’s ambition to catch one. Because he’s not exactly your typical viking. He’s much less robust, and well… he’s a nerd. He wants to catch a dragon to get noticed and become a hero. He fires a machine at a dragon they call the Night Fury (which no one has ever seen), and it goes down in the woods. Of course no one believes him.

His father, Stoick, is the leader of the vikings and tells Hiccup he is enrolled in dragon fighting school while he and the other vikings head off to try and find the dragons’ “nest,” a place that they can’t find the way too. Meanwhile, Hiccup goes after the dragon he shot down, and finds it, still tied up. He attempts to kill it to be a real viking, but can’t due to the look on its face, so instead he sets it free. It growls and shrieks at him before disappearing.

From here we kinda go back and forth between Hiccup and his interactions with the other kids and dragons in Dragon training, and Hiccup discovering that the Night Fury he caught is stuck in a gorge, the apparatus he used to shoot him down having cut part of his tail so that he can’t balance and turn in the air. Curious, Hiccup soon learns through his interactions with “Toothless” that dragons are not what the vikings had made them out to be: instead of being vicious, they instead are misunderstood and are more like big dogs or cats. Eventually one of the other students, Astrid, finds out what he’s doing, and soon he shows her what’s been going on. While they are flying on toothless, he gets put into almost a trance, and they fly, along with other dragons, to the nest, where the duo figure out that there is an even bigger dragon inside that is using the smaller ones almost as slaves to bring it food (or, like the analogy they use in the book, a bee hive and its queen.)

Stoick and the other vikings return just in time to see Hiccup be the top of his class in dragon training, meaning he gets to kill the dragon he’s fighting. The entire town watching, he takes this as his time to try and show the others that the dragons aren’t as scary and menacing as they all thought they were, when the dragon gets distracted and tries to kill him. Toothless comes in to rescue him, and he gets caught. Hiccup lets it slip that only a dragon knows the way to the nest, and Stoick ends up using Toothless as the way to get to the nest and destroy the dragons once and for all.

The kids left on the island after the others leave with toothless, Hiccup decides not to give up after a talk with Astrid, and them and the other kids end up befriending the dragons in the training ring and riding them to the dragon island, where they fight the big dragon.

I’m not giving away the end.

So that’s How to Train Your Dragon. The story is very unique, and although I’m really not a fan of the whole “dragons being like a beehive” part, the rest of the movie completely makes up for its strange… biology?, in my mind.

This universe is awesome. I really can’t wait for the second movie and to delve more into the world of these vikings and learn more about these dragons and possibly other creatures that live there. The designs of the dragons are unique and very cool; each species of dragon has their own physiological differences, but all dragons share certain aspects (e.g. Noise can make them dizzy). The abilities of some of the species of dragons are very cool. I mean, there’s one dragon that has two heads. One breathes gas while the other sparks it to make fire. That’s incredibly creative and brings about more possibilities other than just the “dragon that breathes fire.” There’s also a book that  the dragon teacher Gobber gives to Hiccup about all the dragons the vikings know about. He flips through it, and we see amazing illustrations along with words of what these species can do. I really want to see more of these dragons, because they just sound so cool. Razor sharp wings? Spitting acid? Yes please!!

But by far the best best best part of this movie for me is Toothless and Hiccup. The relationship that these two develop is seriously one of the best friendships and partnerships in movie-dom. What’s so great about them is that you believe their friendship. You see it from the beginning, see it form, and realize that these two would do anything for each other at the end, and they really do. No matter what happens, they’re in it together.

I’m really going to talk at length about these characters and this relationship and why I feel it’s so special and really at the heart of this movie. To do that, though, I need to first talk about the characters. So we’ll start with Hiccup. First off, he’s voice by Jay Baruchel, which honestly took some getting used to. Now, I can’t picture any other voice. Second, If you’ve never seen the movie, let’s give you an idea of what hiccup looks like versus his father, Stoick…

Image       vsImage

Yeah. He’s a geek. It’s not that he’s just lanky. In all honesty, 3/5 of the other kids in dragon training are lanky too. It just adds to his nature. He’s not strong like the other kids. He can’t be trusted to fight dragons. He can’t walk around town during a dragon ambush without being a klutz and getting half the town in trouble. It’s even a running joke that his father or Gobber points to him and goes “You just need to be less of that,” and Hiccup goes, “You just gestured to all of me…” He’s not a well liked or well respected kid. If anything, he’s the black sheep. That’s led him to become sarcastic and self-deprecating. But he still has drive to please his father. That’s why he’s so keen to kill a dragon, bring its head back, and prove to everyone that he can be a viking.

But all that changes when he actually sees the dragon he caught: a dragon that no one has ever seen. In that book I talked about before, there’s no picture, everything is unknown, and the only thing it says is to “run like hell.” This is his moment. He can kill a dragon no one’s ever seen. But something stops him. He tells Astrid later that it was because he looked into his eyes, and he looked just as scared as he was. It’s not that he couldn’t kill the dragon, but he wouldn’t. That’s not who he is. He’s not a barbarian like a lot of the other vikings in town. He’s willing to see past the exterior and make a connection with a “terrifying” monster and see that he is just like him. He discovers through Toothless that it’s ok not being like everyone else. That if you stick to being yourself, you can rise to amazing heights (in this case literally.)

Ok, so that’s Hiccup. Let’s talk about Toothless, because for a dragon that can’t talk, oh goodness is he amazing and hilarious. First off, here’s what the unknown, unspeakable night fury looks like:

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He’s so cute!! It’s like if they took Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, turned him black, gave him wings, then mixed him with a dog, a cat, and a Totoro. This thing totally has Miyazaki written all over it. (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, we’ll get to him in our next 12 reviews or so…). I LOVE the design of Toothless. This should show you how much: at the time this movie started getting advertised, I was in the process of designing characters for what is now my 4th unpublished book. In this book, I have a dragon. I literally started designing him, then saw this movie poster and went “crap, now I can’t do that, he looks almost like that dragon! Everyone will think I was ripping off the movie!” so yes, I love the design.

The other thing, other than looks, that makes Toothless even more memorable is the way they have this guy act. He’s plucky and stubborn, and shares a lot of traits with Hiccup. Without talking, Toothless is very expressive. The faces he gives convey his mood, or the way he gets up and walks away, or acts like an overly excited dog, or a stalking cat. The way he grunts his disapproval or uses his ears and frills to slap hiccup when he’s doing something wrong. You don’t need him to talk, and I’m glad they didn’t, because that would distract from what’s so great about him.

Now on to the two of them. I could literally watch the scene where Toothless and Hiccup first connect a million times in a row and not get sick of it. Hiccup already realizes that Toothless didn’t kill him when he had the chance, so he’s starting to question if what the vikings teach about dragons really is true. Since he knows the dragon is hurt, he assumes that he can’t get food, and sets about trying to bring him some fish. After a few tense moments where Hiccup realizes that the dragon’s aggression is brought on by fear of his knife, both seem to relax to the point that Toothless goes and seems to treat Hiccup as a equal, even sharing some of his regurgitated fish.

What I love about this is that Hiccup didn’t have to eat that nasty fish. He could have thrown it away. But he does anyway, because he realizes that this dragon may be something to be respected. This action seems to start our friendship, and the rest of the scene is Hiccup being curious and trying to get closer to the dragon, and Toothless not having any of it. So instead, Hiccup sits by the bank and starts doodling in the sand with a stick, drawing a picture of the dragon. He gets curious and comes over, almost realizes that this kid is drawing him, and goes and uproots a whole tree and starts drawing what, in his mind, Hiccup looks like. Of course it’s just scribbles, but as Hiccup tries to get out, he steps on a line and toothless growls. Again, another respect thing. Hiccup understands and steps in between the lines until he feels the dragon’s breath on his neck. He reaches out his hand, and is able to pet him. A friendship has been made.

That scene is amazing. The music is awesome, not just during this scene but the other seriously memorable ones as well. During the rest of the movie, their friendship only strengthens due to the fact that Toothless actually NEEDS Hiccup, otherwise he can’t fly. Hiccup fashions a new tail on him, and it eventually becomes a saddle and the two must work in unison to be able to fly.  Once Toothless accepts this, they’re unstoppable.

The flying scenes are amazing, beautiful, and surreal. To see this in 3D must have been cool, although seeing it on your home TV is just as awesome. The animation of the characters and scenes are very dreamworks – that means they’re good. I’ve already commented on the design of the dragons being really unique.

The rest of the characters are very memorable, and they add to the fun of the movie while Hiccup and Toothless really carry it. Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is typical viking but also dealing with trying to understand his son. Their relationship is believable, but Stoick is missing for part of the movie, and I know it had to be done, but I almost hope we see more of their relationship in the 2nd movie. Hiccup is the apprentice to Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick’s friend who runs the blacksmith shop, has a missing tooth he’s constantly repounding in and an interchangeable hand. He’s daft and hilarious and in charge of dragon training. He’s the best teacher ever (sarcasm… kinda). It’s hilarious.

The kids in dragon training are really the only other characters we have. They’re all voiced by SNL or other comedic voices, and believe it or not it didn’t detract. Sometimes having voices like that really can. We have Snotlout (Jonah Hill: this character in the book was actually Hiccup’s cousin…), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka Mclovin’) , Ruffnut and Tuffnut the Twins (voiced by T.J. Miller & Kristen Wiig respectively), and of course our love interest, Astrid (America Ferrera). They’re funny as a whole. I think Jonah Hill does the best job, but the others are memorable and I have to say that they’ve grown on me the more I’ve watched this movie. I think that’s because I’m picking up on lines that I didn’t hear before. They say some pretty clever stuff. They are, at times, though, a bit annoying, and the first time i watched it, they drove me crazy.

Astrid is interesting, because she acts as the love interest, and it’s well known that Hiccup adores her, but it’s not pushed. The relationship between Hiccup and toothless is front and center like it should be. Astrid is all tough and critical and wants to be the victor during dragon training, and actually spends half the movie trying to figure out what Hiccup’s up to and being upset at him when he does better than her. After meeting toothless, she changes and understands like he does. At this point she almost acts like the voice of reason and the sounding board for Hiccup as he watches his best friend being carted away.

I’m not going to say much more about this movie. I’ve explained the really amazing parts, and honestly the only thing I don’t like (although it’s a big thing) is the whole “dragons being like a beehive” thing. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just… weird. I can’t get over it. There’s nothing wrong with it. I just think that the first half of the movie is much stronger than the second.

I will say though that the way they ended it is amazing. It took guts, and it had me crying. Toothless is always there for Hiccup. Can’t wait for the 2nd one.

I would definitely recommend this movie. If you have really little ones just know that this movie does have a few scary moments, but there’s no inappropriate humor that I can really remember. If you haven’t watched it or if Dreamworks kinda petered out for you, give this one a go. It was a pleasant surprise and I really hope they don’t ruin the sequel.

I give How to Train Your Dragon a 4.75 out of 5. A personal favorite but definitely not perfect.

Up Next: Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (YAY MIYAZAKI TIME!!!!!)

** Wait wait wait. I’m on imdb and David Tennant is a voice in this?? What character is Spitelout??? Snotlout’s father? Gotta listen for this next time!