How To Train Your Dragon was a surprise hit back in 2010, and such a huge success that DreamWorks Animation gave the green light for a trilogy.
The sequel is bigger, yes, and more dazzling to the eyes, but darker too, as writer/director Dean DeBlois builds on the franchise.
It’s five years on, and the Vikings on the island of Berk have patched up their differences and stopped warring with the dragons. Now, every villager has a scaly, fire-breathing BFF, while the touching bromance between Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless (as adorable as ever) is still going strong.
Hiccup’s dad Stoick (Gerard Butler) is keen for him to take over one day as head of the clan, but his son, now 20 years old and with the stubble to prove it, has other plans, and heads off with his faithful companion to explore new lands.
It’s during one of these adventures that they hear of scary hunter Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou)’s evil scheme to take over the world by building an army of dragons.
They also encounter the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett with a slightly erratic Scottish accent) and Eret (Game Of Thrones star Kit Harington going Cockney), one of Drago’s henchmen, who Hiccup’s pal Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) instantly takes a fancy to – something her other lovelorn suitors Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Snoutlout (Jonah Hill) aren’t so happy about.
Disappointingly, Astrid (America Ferrera) has now been relegated to the standard girlfriend role, standing by the sidelines as Hiccup gets in on all the action after playing such an important ass-kicking role in the first film.
The stakes are much higher this time around, while DeBlois tries to create a more emotionally rich back story as Hiccup finds out what it means to be a man. Someone’s clearly been watching The Empire Strikes Back.
This is a universe where actions have consequences, and a few of the more dramatic plot developments might be upsetting to younger cinema-goers. Remember, Hiccup and Toothless were maimed in the first film, and the sequel features some similarly shocking moments.
But as gut-wrenching as these are, How To Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as the more satisfying original, in which Hiccup struggled to gain acceptance from his father. The follow-up comes off as a more stock coming-of-age story, as amiable and entertaining as it is, while the expanded narrative doesn’t feel as cohesive.
Technically, though, the film is outstanding.
It’s a real marvel to look at, with the sparkling 3D visuals guaranteed to induce a child-like sense of wonder in older members of the audience. An early scene showing Hiccup and Toothless flying above the clouds looks absolutely stunning. We’re with them every step of the way as they dive and tumble through the sky and it’s a truly exhilarating spectacle.
Stepping into an icy cave where colourful baby beasties are running amok is a delight to behold, while a game involving dragon riders and sheep being chucked into the air shows how brilliantly the playfulness of animation can pay off. Toothless, meanwhile, has never looked glossier.
DeBlois and his team – including cinematographer Roger Deakins, back as a visual consultant – have outdone themselves, with every luscious detail, painstakingly rendered.
It’s not quite a soaring triumph, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 is still hands down one of the best films DreamWorks has ever made, and proves that this franchise still has plenty of fire in its belly.