Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 – A beautiful sequel that holds its own

THERE is a running joke in film circles that whenever you release a sequel to a film it has to be darker as a reaction to its predecessor. This has spawned many jokes (just search E.T. 2 on Youtube) and swathes of commentary amongst film fans. It makes sense for fan interest that you’d want to tell a different story; can’t be having fans getting bored of your potential franchise. I personally like to call it ‘The Temple of Doom Effect’. How to Train Your Dragon 2 certainly falls under the category of darker sequel, but by gum does it pull it off well.

Five years have passed since the events of the first film and we’re quickly introduced to a slightly older Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). With age, his concerns are of a more mature nature – his father wants him to take on the mantle of chieftain as he feels now is a good enough time to retire and let Hiccup take over. Hiccup, naturally, feels conflicted about this and the film runs from there.

Beyond Hiccup having to make grown-up decisions and the presence of an ongoing relationship with Astrid (America Ferrera) there is a more mature feel to the entirety of the film. The bad guys are humans this time round, not dragons; the cinematography is darker, the action a lot punchier and the slapstick humour isn’t as present as it was in the first film. Overall it feels as if director Dean DeBlois took a step back from the original, chose not to be overwhelmed by its huge success, and decided to Temple of Doom it. In doing so, however, he managed to retain all of the good things about the first film.

The moments of frisson are still throughout the film and the edge of the seat is most definitely used a lot more than the rest of it. The comedy, though not primarily slapstick, is still very funny. Where the film really succeeds is how it builds on the previous film’s heights and pushes them even further. A fantastic fight scene between two of the big players in the film is beautifully set against the backdrop of two huge dragons fighting each other, while the other set-pieces of the film are continually surprising and beautifully presented.

The camera following Toothless and Hiccup as they soar through the air is still dizzyingly intense but it’s the moments where the action dies down that the scenery really shines. Fluffy clouds lit by a setting sun, a character surrounded in a dark cavern by dragons that hiss and flare their flames, a towering behemoth of a dragon rising into view as a character stands in front of its nose. It all combines to create a truly epic piece of film, but what else could you expect from a piece of cinema that involves dragons?

It’s not all sweeping bombast though; throughout the film runs a truly engaging emotional core. If you’ve seen the trailers you will know that Hiccup encounters his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has previously been thought to be dead. While the reaction from Hiccup is well-written enough, it’s when his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) meets with Valka once again and Hiccup takes a step back from the two that the relationship really tugs at the heart strings. All of the newer characters introduced means that others also have to take a step back so we can get to know these new faces but it’s so well done that we don’t even miss seeing the old faces for a bit.

Remember, this is a film that has very few human characters, so it’s with a brilliant flourish that each of the characters play off each other when encountering the new major players Eret (Kit Harrington) and a truly chilling villain in the form of Drago Bloodfist Djimon Hounsou). The dragons and especially Toothless (Randy Thom) are all very well realised and you can see where the creators have drawn from different animals to portray them. Toothless, for instance, is a cross between every person’s favourite pet and a super-fast killing machine. What’s not to love?

This is a fantastic film. Not just for kids, this film makes some very mature decisions in where to take the franchise and, with confirmation of a third film in the works, I look forward to seeing where they can take this series in the future.

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