With Shrek living happily ever after, 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was the studio's next attempt to create a franchise. I highly enjoyed the first film. It had wonderful animation, fun characters, and an exciting story with messages about how some things aren't what they seem (that the dragons were misunderstood creatures). It was an animated film that was could rival against many of Pixar's films and DreamWorks's best film since Shrek 2.
Having been highly acclaimed and a box office success, a sequel was all but assured. Before then, though, DreamWorks had an animated TV show called Dragons, which chronicled the adventures between the vikings and the dragons. And so we get to the sequel. While it's not quite as good as the original film, it's a very worthy sequel.
Taking place five years after the events of the original, the vikings of Berk and the dragons are still at peace with one another. The two species work together and even have dragon sports. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the teenager who brought in this new era, flies over the oceans with his dragon, Toothless, looking through unexplored territories.
While out there, Hiccup comes across a band of dragon trappers led by Eret (Kit Harington). It turns out that they are working for a conqueror known as Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who seeks to take over the world with an army of dragons. Hiccup wants to try and make peace with him, but Stoick believes that it cannot be done. Going against his wishes, Hiccup goes to search for Drago, along the way finding an unexpected ally.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 does what Shrek 2 did, it takes the strengths of the original and expands on the franchise's universe. The world goes beyond Berk and we get to see different lands. There are also some new dragons such as the Alpha and Stormcutter.
The sequel is a more mature story than its predecessor. Hiccup has come of age and will eventually have to fill his father's shoes. Still young and spending too much time expanding the world map, he's unsure if he'll make a good leader to his people. He is also thrown into many circumstances that are often times out of his control that he is forced to grow up fast.
The most notable diversions from most animated films here is the drastic change in tone. Most animated films these days are more family friendly. The sequel has a dark tone. The villain is a crazed psychopath and there comes a time where it seems evil might prevail. There was even one scene that recalled Bambi and The Lion King. While it's not quite as grim as something like The Secret of NIMH or Watership Down, this is probably the most serious animated film in more recent times.
The animation is excellent and some of the best that we've seen from a DreamWorks movie. Along with its predecessor, this rivals most of Pixar's recent efforts. The flight sequences are beautifully done and it quite fun to see a lot of dragons flying around in some scenes. The landscape of the universe is similarly rendered.
The voice acting is quite good. Jay Baruchel brings more maturity to Hiccup's character. Recent Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett was nice to hear as a surprise character. Gerard Butler does really good playing the father. Djimon Hounsou gives a menacing performance as the psychotic Drago. Kit Harington voices in this, and while not a lot is done with his character, it's nice to see his character without thinking of Jon Snow.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn't quite as fresh as the first was, but it is a very good follow-up. While The LEGO Movie still holds the spot for best animated film of the year, this comes in a close second. With those two having shown quite a lot of promise, we now have to wait and see if Disney can pull it off likewise with Big Hero 6.
After the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which had brought the Planet of the Apes franchise back from the grave, we are now getting to the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. After the franchise had been laid to rest after five movies and then being brought back to life and to be beaten back into the ground after a less than stellar remake, it was resurrected by the surprise success of the 2011 reboot. While it wasn't without its problems, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good sci-fi movie that served as a prequel to the classic original while also being respectful towards its history. It showcased really good motion capture effects and it had a mesmerizing performance from Andy Serkis as Caesar.
The post-credits scene at the end of the previous film is built upon more in the sequel. While mankind destroyed itself through nuclear war in the original series, they are driven to endangered species when they are struck with a deadly virus that was created from a scientific formula created in the previous film. While done differently, it still retains the theme that while science can bring great possibilities, it can be very dangerous if you abuse it. As for the film, as a whole, it takes the strength of its predecessor and makes it even better.
The plot takes place ten years after the events of Rise. Humans have been dying by the millions because of the virus that started spreading at the end of the previous film. Meanwhile, the apes live in the forests of Muir Woods. Still being led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), they have become much more advanced in learning speech. However, trouble brews when humans from a faction in San Francisco are sent into the woods to fix a power grid so that they can try to start over. While the two species try to make peace, eventually chaos ensues and leads to all-out battle.
After something as brain-numbing as the fourth Transformers movie, it's good to see another action movie that actually has intelligence. Instead of a spectacle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes brings us to a post-apocalyptic world where everyone is struggling to stay alive and two groups who are at each other. Some want more peaceful arrangements, while others want to go to war against the other.
There is also some social commentary to be found here. There is much prejudice between the humans and apes. Some of the humans believe that the apes were responsible for the way the world is since the virus came from experiments on them. The apes view themselves as superior to the humans due to their higher intelligence. However, both of them are capable of both good and evil.
The interactions between Caesar and the humans are done really well. The human characters are also given better development than in the previous installment. But the most interesting dynamic in the sequel was the differences between Caesar and his second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell). While Caesar does see that humans can be corrupt, at the same time, he sees the compassion that they are capable of after being raised by a human. Koba, on the other hand, was raised in the laboratories. Having been experimented on nearly his whole life, Koba never knew the kindness Caesar was given. In a way, Koba is a representation of what Caesar might have become if he only knew hatred.
Along with having brains, Dawn offers a lot of blockbuster fun. The action sequences that come during the second half gives us a battle between apes and humans, apes taking over, and a battle between two apes. The visuals here are very high quality. Instead of being complete CGI, the apes are all done through motion capture. With a much higher budget, whatever glitches there were in the previous film (though few) are gone. The apes look like real characters.
To the film's benefit, the plot gives more screen-time to the primates. As he did in the previous film, Andy Serkis as Caesar steals the show in every scene he's in. Serkis has proven in the past that he can make an effects-rendered character memorable through Gollum and King Kong. The other apes are really good as well in their movements and expressions. The standout being Toby Kebbell as Koba, who while giving off aggressive vibes also has a few scenes where he acts dumb to fool two humans.
While the apes are given more emphasis, the human characters are also given plenty to do. Jason Clarke does a good job as Malcolm, the voice of reason among the group of humans. Gary Oldman, who plays the leader of the survivors, is quite good and even has one heartfelt moment in one scene. The other characters here are given their own thing to do.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is to its predecessor what The Dark Knight was to Batman Begins. While it is quite a fun ride, it has something to say as well. The ending does leave room for another sequel, which will be coming to theaters in 2016. And it looks like the conflict between apes and humans is going to turn into a war. This is probably the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original.