'Dragon' sequel hopes to soar like original movie

DreamWorks studio has invested much hope in 'How to Train Your Dragon' sequel soaring and scoring like the original animated movie, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 12:18pm

At Cannes this year, there seemed to be an awful lot riding on How to Train Your Dragon 2. The sequel to 2010's surprise animation hit, about a young Viking who befriends a dragon named Toothless, it arrived weighed down with expectations.

Never mind measuring up to the high bar set by its predecessor - this follow-up is seen as a must-hit movie for DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind it.

Under-performing DreamWorks titles of the past few years, such as Mr Peabody & Sherman (2014), Turbo (2013) and Rise of the Guardians (2012), all fell well short of the US$494 million that How to Train Your Dragon raked in three years ago. Compare that with the numbers racked up by Disney princess toon Frozen last year: US$1.24 billion. Still, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg must be feeling quietly confident: early reviews have been blazing, with trade paper Variety proclaiming it the studio's "strongest sequel yet".

[Like Hiccup] I know what it is to be wired differently, to feel like you're born into a society that you're at odds with
jay baruchel, on why how to train your dragon 2 has both heart and soul 

Furthermore, How to Train Your Dragon already comes with a huge following, thanks to the dozen books written by Cressida Cowell that have inspired the films. In between the first and second films, the creators smartly put together a Cartoon Network TV series, DreamWorks Dragons, bridging the two movies and explaining just how Vikings and dragons learned to co-exist. And, lest we forget, with the enormous rise in popularity of the adult HBO series, Game of Thrones, fire-breathing beasties are very in right now.

"I know for a fact that How to Train Your Dragon was a lot of kids' favourite movie of all time, and they watch it every single day," says Jay Baruchel, who voices Hiccup. "But I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams expected that it was going to be a global phenomenon. That's just not an option, right? So had there only been the first movie, that would still be massive beyond our wildest dreams. Man, we lucked out. You can spend your entire career and never be part of something half as impactful as these movies. I feel like I got to stumble into our Star Wars."

Much of this can be attributed to Dean DeBlois, the Canadian-born filmmaker who went solo on How to Train Your Dragon 2 after co-writing and directing its predecessor with Chris Sanders, with whom he also made 2002's Lilo & Stitch. "When How to Train Your Dragon became a success, Jeffrey came to me and said, 'OK, I need ideas for a sequel,'" recalls DeBlois. With Sanders then working on prehistoric cartoon The Croods, it left DeBlois with carte blanche to take the franchise where he wanted.

While previous DreamWorks sequels were hardly groundbreaking - think of the Shrek franchise, for example - the 44-year-old DeBlois had ambitions. "I told [Katzenberg] I was keen on it if he would consider it being a trilogy. So it doesn't feel like an arbitrary random next adventure with the same five or six characters. It's now a seemingly necessary evolution in Hiccup's coming of age, and so by re-introducing him five years later, we get to see him at a different period in his life."

When Katzenberg agreed, DeBlois set to work crafting a story arc that appealed to both "the 10-year-old in me and the 44-year-old in me"; his immediate model was The Empire Strikes Back, the 1980 sequel to George Lucas' touchstone sci-fi Star Wars which both expanded its galaxy, geographically speaking, and homed in on some major personal issues. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is no longer the socially awkward soul he was in the original film; now, he's on a much wider journey than simply taming a dragon.

Together with the still impossibly cute Toothless and his friend Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup sets out to discover uncharted territories outside of Berk, the Viking village overseen by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler). It leads them, eventually, to an island haven created by a giant Bewilderbeast dragon from shards of ice, and to some significant personal revelations for Hiccup when he meets dragon rider Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has been keeping the creatures safe for the past two decades.

It was this element that intrigued Djimon Hounsou, one of the franchise's newcomers, who plays the villainous, dragon-snaring Drago. "What appealed to me was the humanity in the story - the notion of tolerance between man and creature," he says. "And that's why it resonates; grown-ups can enjoy this film as much as kids."

DeBlois was largely able to call upon any actor he wanted. He recounts how he lured Blanchett for the role of Valka, having written the character with the actress in mind. Seeing her at a cocktail party at the 2011 Academy Awards, when How to Train Your Dragon was up for best animated film, he approached her. "I told her I'd written a part for her, and luckily her three boys were giant fans of the first one. So I described Valka a little bit. And it was amazing; immediately she started going into character," the director recalls.

DeBlois also plundered the crème-de-la-crème of Hollywood's behind-camera talent, including 11-time Oscar-nominated live-action cinematographer Roger Deakins, who again came on board as "visual consultant". DeBlois also had DreamWorks bigwig and Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg on hand. "I'm giddy," DeBlois says, laughing. "Having the wealth of his experience, taste and knowledge at our fingertips was incredible."

Although DreamWorks cartoons are often accused of lacking heart and soul, Baruchel argues otherwise, pointing out just how connected he is to his character. "[Like Hiccup] I know what it is to be wired differently, to feel like you're born into a society that you're at odds with. I know what it is to be quite different to your father, to have him expect very specific things from you, and for you to want to do things yourself. Hiccup is an embodiment of a massive part of my soul."

Baruchel and company will be returning for the third part, although a date has yet to be set. "The pressure to get the third one under way is palpable," DeBlois admits. "I'm looking to take a little break beforehand, just to refresh my mind and come up with some inspired ideas." Maybe a research trip is in order? For this film, DeBlois went on a six-day snowmobile safari to Svalbard in Norway, watching polar bears in the wild with armed guards.

The director smiles: he learned on the Hawaii-set Lilo & Stitch that if you set a project in a cool place, you might just get to go there. "Some of them don't make any sense," he says, for example, "we can't have the third part of the trilogy take place in South Africa." He does hint at the direction part three will take: a notion from Cowell, who has told him that she wants to conclude her series of books by explaining why dragons are no more. "Where they've gone, and what happened to them, will be revealed," he says.

Now that's one way to complete a trilogy.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 opens on Thursday