Film Review | How To Train Your Dragon 2

Visually dazzling, funny and action-packed throughout, this sequel to the 2010 original more than lives up to its predecessor, all the while telling a coming-of-age story with panache and tenderness.
 

Friends forever: Toothless and Hiccup face a serious threat in this spirited sequel to 2010's How to Train Your Dragon
Friends forever: Toothless and Hiccup face a serious threat in this spirited sequel to 2010's How to Train Your Dragon

Hitting a variety of mythological storytelling sweet spots, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise – whose first instalment hit cinemas in 2010 – was a charming proposition from the very start.

Undercutting the machismo of historical Vikings by giving us a protagonist, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who is a gawky black sheep among their ranks, the Dreamworks animated adaptation of the book series by Cressida Cowell also succeeded in endearing us to dragons: no mean feat, considering how the fire-spouting flying lizards served as the embodiment of evil and wanton destruction ever since what seems to be the beginning of time.

In short, it turned out to be a great way of telling a familiar story, because the rough Viking setting offered a nice contrast to what is otherwise a standard coming-of-age story (read: “just be yourself”) common to the mainstays of contemporary digital animation.

Five years after Hiccup managed to quell the age-old blood feud between Vikings and dragons – scoring himself a formidable (and adorable) dragon steed, Toothless, in the process – our protagonist finds himself at a crossroads, as his father, the Viking chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is keen to pass the baton to his physically unimpressive but otherwise resourceful only son.

Though Hiccup is reluctant to accept the honour at first – thinking that his restless nature would make him an unfit leader – he is forced to make a decision when their outpost, Berk, now teeming with friendly dragons, comes under serious threat.

Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou), a dragon-hunter with a link to Stoick’s past, returns from the annals of urban – or is that animated-fantasy-Viking-epic? – legend and threatens to enslave all of the dragons at Berk… which, much to Hiccup’s dismay, includes his beloved Toothless.

Though everyone except Hiccup (apparently also a keen diplomat-to-be) appears to be resigned to the fact that there’s no way of talking Drago around, help appears from the unlikeliest of quarters… though they’re actually closer to home than Hiccup could ever imagine.

That this sequel retains the same charm as the original is probably down to the fact that it has some material to draw on: being based on a book series, the franchise is less likely to collapse under the weight of studio interference and committee-written scripts.

It also has a secret weapon in its hangar: visual consultant Roger Deakins, whose impressive CV boasts cinematographic work for the likes of the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes (and that includes work for James Bond outing Skyfall) – which makes him the midwife to some of the most beautifully rendered shots in recent mainstream cinema and which probably helped the film sustain an immersive, sumptuous look.

Coupled with an inspired take on creature designs, Dean DeBlois’s film (he both writes and directs) is both a heartfelt and engaging experience – funny and visually stunning, which is more than you can say about most blockbusters these days.

It’s also a film where ‘stunt casting’ is less of a gimmick and more of a treat. Baruchel perhaps works a tad too hard to convince us that Hiccup is a lovably awkward hero – those of us who saw the original certainly did not need convincing – as he affects a squeaking delivery that stops being cute and starts to grate soon enough. But Gerard Butler’s warm, heavily accented tones go down well: the erstwhile rugged action hero (King Leonidas from ‘300’ himself) channelling his talents into a more endearing direction. Famed Scottish-born, US-based television host Craig Ferguson is also great as the bumbling – and probably drunken – comic relief character Gobber, while the ordinarily dignified Djimon Honsou is allowed to let rip as Drago. Looking like a Rastafarian – and steroid-enhanced – take on Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Batman Returns (1992), Drago’s presence is a good, menacing foil to the dragon-cuteness and camaraderie that infuses the rest of the film.

But all attention will doubtlessly be diverted to Cate Blanchett, who voices a character much-advertised to be the feminine core of the film – and her Valka certainly adds a touch of mystery and delicacy amidst all the action.

Balancing comedy with action is often a challenge, as an overarching humorous tone can sometimes kill some of the tension that is necessary for thrilling action scenes. But boasting a ‘big bad dragon’ that, in terms of design and sheer scale, could easily be a match for any of the ‘kaiju’ in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013), the key action set pieces have real urgency, more so because the emotional stakes are also high.

Coming in the wake of that other modern fairy tale, the much-hyped but muddled Maleficent, How to Train Your Dragon 2 feels like a brisk and confident take on familiar tropes and archetypes: revisiting common ground with both clarity and creative zeal.

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