Writer: Dean DeBlois, Cressida Cowell (book)
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Kirsten Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Running time: 102mins
The lowdown: Spirited sequel to the surprise 2010 hit, adding more adventure, more danger and a whole lot more dragons. Five years since uniting Vikings and dragons in his village of Berk, Hiccup and trusty sidekick Toothless, once more find themselves in danger when dragon hating warlord Drago threatens both humans and winged serpents. And then there is the mysterious Dragon Rider, with special ties to Hiccup. A flambé’d feast for the eyes and with the same qualities that marks the best of Pixar, this follow-up also isn’t afraid to swoop down into (family friendly) darker territory.
The full verdict: Fair to say the original How To Train Your Dragon was a success no-one saw coming. The title was a little artless and Dreamworks Animation was always a definite second to the House That Toy Story Built.
But, then arrived a film that could easily have flown out the Pixar stable. Heart, soul, imagination and a commitment to story rather than a loose plot upon which to hang comic vignettes placed this alongside DreamWorks’ other two Pixar-like greats – Kung Fu Panda and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
This, coupled with a worldwide box office just shy of $500m, meant a sequel was inevitable. But, with director Dean DeBlois citing The Empire Strikes Back as a chief influence, this clearly will not be any belated cash-in.
And being a part 2, there is the requisite bigger scale, greater action and darker tone. Kicking off with a Quidditchy game involving dragons and catapulted sheep (an Aardman nod?), DeBlois is keen to flex his kinetic directing style early. We swoop with the dragons, they swoop above us, the camera soars to nose-bleeding heights and then dives earthwards at terminal speed.
All rendered, like the rest of the film, with dazzling beauty and sparkling animation thanks to a new set of software toys (named Torch, Premo and Apollo, techheads) the creatives now have to play with.
Darkness creeps in with the arrival of dragon-trapper Eret (Game of Thrones’ Harrington), hunting the flying lizards for Drago (Hounsou), a warlord so fearsome even Hiccup’s dad Stoick suggests they should stay in Berk and out of his way.
Hiccup is having none of this, opting instead for a meeting with Drago to prove that dragons are nothing to be feared.
But, the path to peace is not easy. Even with the assistance of the mysterious Dragon Rider, someone with a deep understanding of the Vikings’ former foe. And whose identity is revealed in the trailer below, but won’t be here.
With environmental and pacifist themes, young heroes and a total joy in depicting flight, How To Train Your Dragon 2 bears a strong resemblance to Studio Ghibli’s output, with the Dragon Rider’s entrance through magic hour clouds pure Miyazaki.
Like Miyazaki’s films, it also successfully has its cake and scoffs it with a storyline promoting tolerance and understanding, set against impressive battle sequences. A beachfront assault on a dragons’ nest is Saving Private Ryan meets Ray Harryhausen, rivalling Lord of the Rings for scale and ambition, particularly with not one but two Godzilla-sized beasties going head-to-head.
Unfortunately, what’s lost is a little of the original’s charm. Toothless remains a treat, a silent movie star in a modern family film, but the shift in tone relegates the comedy to the background with a particularly dark end of Act II twist. Heck, even Hiccup’s gang (Hill, Wiig, Mintz-Plasse and Ferrara among the returning voices) pretty much permanently imperilled.
Amusingly however, the weird affliction of kids speaking with North American accents and the elders bellowing Scottish brogue remains. Jay Baruchel’s nasally Ottawan drawl sounds slightly too modern this time around, but Gerard Butler again proves himself far more tolerable when voicing the likeable Stoick than actually appearing onscreen.
Cate Blanchett is suitably dauntless as Dragon Rider, while Hounsou makes for a good bass-heavy bad guy, even if his army does mysteriously vanish before the climactic, “size matters not” face off.
A slight dip below the original, but still premiere family entertainment and if DeBlois can deliver a satisfying conclusion, this could become The Dark Knight Trilogy of kids’ dragon movies.