The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Quebec-raised Baruchel and DeBlois team again for 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

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TORONTO - At the recent premiere of "How to Train Your Dragon 2," star Jay Baruchel and director Dean DeBlois paused amid the mania — which included a crowd reportedly numbering hundreds, a giant inanimate dragon and, eventually, a Ukranian "prankster" accosting star America Ferrera — and paused to take in how far they'd come.

DeBlois grew up in Aylmer, Que., (now Gatineau), about 200 kilometres down the road from Jay Baruchel's beloved Montreal. Together they crafted the first Oscar-nominated 2010 animated smash — which grossed nearly $500 million worldwide — and worked in close proximity the past three years in creating its eye-poppingly grand sequel.

"I literally took him aside at the top of the red carpet, top of the steps at the Grand Palais in Cannes, (and) said: 'Let's just take a moment here. It's not nothing, two boys from Quebec here at the top of the stairwell. It's special,'" said Baruchel during a recent promo trip to Toronto, seated next to Ferrera and DeBlois.

"It really is," agreed DeBlois, who again served as writer-director. "I think growing up there, Hollywood seems very far away. I wanted to be a comic-book artist but I never imagined that I'd be able to have a hand in creating something that will inspire kids the way the movies of my youth inspired me — and I'm sure Jay and America (agree).

"When you come from a small town it just doesn't dawn on you that you could be part of this."

And productions don't come too much bigger than "Dragon 2," which ramps up the scale of the technologically innovative original to the level of blockbuster-besting spectacular. Environments are lush, detailed and busy — with dozens of meticulously realized characters and dragons scurrying onscreen at once — particularly during several extravagant setpieces and a climactic battle that competently mirrors the scope of a war film.

The action takes place five years after the original film, and Baruchel's hero Hiccup — whose lanky reading-lamp posture mirrors that of the "This is the End" star — is now navigating adolescence as well as the limitless blue sky on top of a dragon the colour of avocado skin.

That sweet relationship with Toothless has influenced everyone in Hiccup's Viking community to adopt dragons of their own, which sets them at odds with the malevolent Drago Bludvist (voiced by Djimon Hounsou in a cast that also includes Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig), leading to a series of large-scale confrontations.

The characters are more mature, and so is the story that DeBlois set out to tell. He says he used "The Empire Strikes Back" as a model — "that was one of the few sequels that really delivered and was actually better in my opinion than the first," he explains — and his follow-up similarly dares to chart some downcast territory (including, spoiler alert, at least one primary character casualty).

And yet, neither DeBlois nor Baruchel are fretting that the film is too sombre or sophisticated for the franchise's young core fanbase.

"I think they're along for the ride, period," said Baruchel, also known for roles in "Tropic Thunder," "Knocked Up" and "Goon," which he co-wrote.

"I think that if they dug the first one, they're going to dig this one — because the first one wasn't without its darker moments as well. And I think the fact that we don't shy away from that stuff, we don't shy away from the earnestness, we don't shy away from the comedy — you couldn't take one of those ingredients out.

"That's the recipe of 'How to Train Your Dragon.'"

Baruchel, 32, says his work on the film essentially amounted to a 90-120 minute recording session every two months over a three-year period.

He and Ferrera recorded a key flirty exchange between their lead characters in the same room — Baruchel's favourite scene in the film, by the way — but otherwise would work in solitude alongside their director.

"The entire time (we were) faced with Dean's bad acting," Baruchel said with a laugh.

"I provide all the other voicers in lieu of our actors and I'm a terrible actor," DeBlois shrugged. "So it's not really any help. Jay usually just tells me, 'I'll just do the line. I don't need you to read it out.'"

The book-based franchise is rapidly turning into a giant — a third film is reportedly due for 2016, joining a growing media empire that also includes a TV show, theatrical play and video-game series — and yet Baruchel and Ferrera both feel as though they have a creative voice ("he might just be humouring me but I like to feel like I have input," Baruchel says, to the enthusiastic agreement of his director).

Ferrera, for instance, read an early draft of DeBlois's script in which her Astrid had a lesser role. DeBlois says her feedback led to him expanding the character's role to the point where she has an adventure of almost parallel focus and importance to Hiccup's.

Still, Ferrera said the isolated nature of the actors' contributions allows the cast to be pleasantly surprised by the finished product.

"It's like opening a gift on Christmas," she said.

"Yeah, more than any other movie that I've ever been in, I really just get to watch," nodded Baruchel. "What we do is so small and specific and myopic — you just say the words and it's over the course of three years.

"When we get to sit down and see it, we get to see it for the first time. You rarely get that treat, to watch a movie that you're a part of as a fan. The first time you see it — I don't have the words. It's just incredible."

— Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

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