Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

My apologies for the lack of content lately. The FIFA World Cup is dominating pretty much all aspects of my life at present, including my sleeping patterns. But today is a rest day!

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Starring:
Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler
Director:
Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch, How To Train Your Dragon)
Rating: PG
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It’s been a while since the first How To Train Your Dragon movie flew into cinemas and swept up the hearts of more than a few moviegoers. Though Dreamworks’ animated feature output had been inconsistent since the first Shrek, the fantastical 2010 coming-of-age tale about a social outcast who finds his purpose through a chance dragon meeting was a bona fide hit in more ways than one. It nailed the difficult balance of appealing to a wide range of audience tastes, with badass dragons on one hand and some tear-jerking moments built off strong characterisation rather than tacky manipulation on the other. It was a great film, and four years later the now-franchise has managed to top itself. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is just downright excellent.

The chops of the animated sequel are apparent right off the bat. The decision to set the story five years after the initial movie ended is both relevant to the real-life gap between releases as well as a surprisingly rare move in today’s animation landscape. You can understand why – having to drastically change a 3D model you already have in the bank is probably costly – but that hasn’t stopped the Disney competitor from doing just that for its primary cast of characters. Aside from Toothless the dragon, who admittedly was an impressive creation from day one, most every character has undergone a noticeable visual upgrade. That includes making Hiccup and co. look and move more like confident young adults than awkward teenagers. The entire movie, in fact, looks much better than its predecessor, with more believable lighting and richly detailed action sequences on another level from anything we’ve seen from Dreamworks thus far.

Of course the first Dragon film did not need insane visual flashiness to succeed and its heralded characters return here for some more hard-earned lessons. The growth and development of Jay Baruchel‘s partially disabled Hiccup, his dad Stoick (Gerard Butler), their fellow villagers and a couple of newcomers take on a perhaps unexpected trajectory and it really works thanks to some tight direction from Dean DeBlois (who co-wrote Mulan, after all). Given the recent trend of animated sequels (and sequels in general) hitting a lot of the same beats as their forebears, this is great to see. The big game changer in the story this time around is Hiccup’s presumed-dead dragon whisperer mother (not a spoiler people – the first trailer revealed it), played all Scottish-like by Cate Blanchett. She provides a lot of the narrative thrust by holding ties to all its threads and also brings much of its heart. She’s pretty much the protagonist of How To Train Your Dragon 2‘s entire second act, which helps, and Blanchett dominates the role. America Ferrera‘s Astrid, Hiccup’s feisty girlfriend, gets pushed aside a little to accommodate her, which is a shame, if an understandable move plot-wise.

If you had to reach for a tissue during the first How To Train Your Dragon, you might need a whole pack for the sequel. Rest assured that the delivery of emotional moments follows the same rule of scale escalation as the rest of the movie, whether or not you’re an animal lover. The emotion isn’t limited to sadness, either – let’s just say this young franchise is quickly turning into one of the premier providers of “Oh hell yeah!” moments out there. Cool dragons are one thing, but the resourceful Hiccup brings a fair few sweet gadgets along for the ride as well, and they are used to enhance the action rather than distract from it. Medieval flame swords are SICK.

If I have one complaint about How To Train Your Dragon 2, it’s that the humour isn’t quite as successful overall as it was the first time. There are plenty of funny moments, but some of them pop up in the background of otherwise intense scenes and at least one of the recurring jokes goes on for far too long. This is a minor complaint in the scheme of things, however, as How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a winning sequel. It ups the stakes, avoids common pitfalls and keeps character development front and centre, with a ballsy payoff at the end. I can’t really fault it. I’m flabbergasted that the last six months have given us Frozen, The LEGO Movie and now this, with each coming from a different studio to boot. A wonderful time for animation, this is.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
 Step up in animation quality, cool gadgets and dragons, unpredictable, strong characters, real emotional core
Bad:
Some jokes fall flat
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5 VsP H E N O M E N A L

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