Cannes customarily shoehorns family-friendly animated films into the festival programme to give light-hearted breaks inbetween the godforsaken socio-realist miseries that inundate the competition strands. The offering this year is Dean Deblois’ follow-up to Dreamworks’ 2010 hit How To Train Your Dragon, and just like the blast of Riviera sunshine outside, this animated sequel (while flawed and over-busy) is a burst of joy. Where Disney has now settled into minting cash out of princess movies (Frozen is mediocre at best) and Pixar has been rather slow in the creative front (proto-feminist yarn Brave is marred by a conventional narrative), Dreamworks has found a material that easily trumps the likes of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and all the studio’s welter of talking creatures and animals. How To Train Your Dragon‘s success relied on the way it revivifies a familiar historical fantasy with Vikings and dragons into something genuinely soaring and entertaining with a human character at the middle of the show. It’s also a rare animation geared for preschool kids that illustrates themes of mortality and the consequences of our actions. The plucky, rebellious young male protagonist saves the day but at the cost of his leg. You look somewhere else in other animated movies and heroes survive unscathed.
In this installment, DeBlois extends that lesson by including themes of war, fealty, morality, family and sacrifice, with death lingering just around the corner. New characters arrive in this vastly extended universe of dragons and dragon-riders, with Cate Blanchett’s Valka and Djimon Honsou’s Drago Bludvist significantly entering the picture, who both stand at the opposite ends of the moral prism, setting the central conflict ablaze. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is an obvious precedence, with Valka’s pro-environmentalist, pro-inter-species assimilation stance going loggerhead with Drago’s embittered warlord with territorial issues. See the wonderfully rendered environment of Valka and her dragon herd, and I dare you not to think of Princess Mononoke‘s lush rainforest.
While visually magnificent, Dragon 2 doesn’t fall short on storytelling either. While by no means a compelling comparison to its predecessor, it manages to be engaging and even, god forbid, moving. Its most adventurous scenes are breathtaking, and its tragic moments feel as wrenching as the Golden Age Disney heartbreakers such as Bambi and The Lion King. Here, there are losses to any fight and while that’s hard to bear for a self-made hero like Hiccup, who is essentially a teenage kid, there are bigger battles to fight for and they are never won by singular courage but by the unity of good. Plus, if you have a terrific pet dragon named Toothless on your side, you’re very likely to win anyway, even up against an alpha-dragon the size of a mountain.