Of all the add-ons and enhancements theaters have been using to set the experience of going to the movies apart from just watching them at home, 3D has the most potential to do good or evil. Lousy conversions and too-dark projection mean that sometimes you'll shell out extra money for the experience only to find it actually makes the film worse. After all, not all movies are shot to look better in three dimensions in the first place — sometimes, it just makes movement muddier and harder to follow.
But when it's done right, 3D can be a reminder that we're still expanding the limits of what movies can be and what they can do. It brings landscapes to life and adds new potential to be immersed in what you're watching. And so far, the summer's best testament to that fact hits theaters this Friday, with How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the 2010 DreamWorks hit about a Viking boy who befriends and learns to ride one of the dragons that have been raiding his town. While a lot of recent animated movies stuff the screen with bright colors, frantic action, and constant wisecracks, How to Train Your Dragon 2, like its prequel, has managed to focus on something more important — a sense of awe.
You can watch the first five minutes of the movie above, which prove the point — it looks fine in that YouTube box, as the latest high-quality computer animation should, but it's got nothing on the experience of seeing it pop on the big screen with the depth of 3D. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is made for theaters. That minute and a half of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless (Randy Thom) barreling over the glittering ocean, dipping close to a pod of whale-like creatures, then zooming up into the clouds, was made to be seen in as expansive a form as possible. It's an embodiment of the sense of exuberant freedom that an entirely digitally created world can offer.
Like the first installment, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has cinematographer Roger Deakins (who shot Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, and a slew of Coen brothers films) as a visual consultant, rightly pushing the gorgeousness of its fantasy world forward. There's still the brightened up town of Berk, dragon-friendly five years after the events of the first installment, perched precariously on its island outpost in the middle of the ocean, and the towering rock formations around it, poking up into the atmosphere. But thanks to dragon-riding, the franchise's universe has expanded in the sequel to include some verdant and some icy new realms that Hiccup's bent on exploring — while avoiding the responsibilities that his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is trying to bestow on him.
Written and directed by Dean DeBlois, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is darker but still pretty standard stuff in terms of its themes and characters — at 20 and beloved by the village and his tough-cookie girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), Hiccup's still not sure about where he fits into Viking life. There are parenting issues and new villains to confront, including a formidable baddie named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who's building his own dragon army. There's also a mysterious dragon rider name Valka (Cate Blanchett) who, it turns out, shares a connection with Hiccup. And Toothless remains the coolest impossible pet ever, adorably doglike or catlike when the occasion calls for it, but also a badass, weaponized form of transportation who's devoted to his owner.
It's easy to get impatient with Hiccup's prolonged coming-of-age — who knew Vikings indulged so much teen angst? — but the film presents new wonders often enough that the creaks in its story don't really matter. A dragon sanctuary presided over by a massive, tusked Bewilderbeast in which the other creatures swirl like flocks of crazy, giant birds is lovely and expands in scope in 3D, as does the movie's first giant battle.
But it's the flight scenes that are always a knockout, and not just when they take the camera swooping between rock formations and around enemies, but in quieter moments as well. The sequence in which Hiccup first encounters Valka takes place high in the air — a hovering confrontation as wisps of clouds scatter beneath their dragons' wings. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is eerie and beautiful and made to be seen as big as possible, a reminder that spectacle doesn't always involve explosions.