Huff and puff gets second wind

How to Train Your Dragon 2 2

If you thought that the How to Train Your Dragon franchise was exclusively for kids, you might need to think again. It's a holiday delight for adults, too.

Bursting with breathtaking animation, affable characters and creative creature designs, this sequel to the well-loved 2010 film How To Train Your Dragon, matches the first with humour and heart galore. Set four years after the first film, the Vikings of the island nation of Berk are now living happily integrated with their former foes – the dragons.

They are content, and chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) has decided to name his son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) as his successor. But Hiccup is more taken with exploring his world with his dragon Toothless than settling down and assuming leadership. With the world opened up, the sequel's story takes the action to a far greater scope than the Berk-centred first film.

The design of the Viking village has also advanced from the first, and has a great combination of rustic and almost steampunk influences painted with vivid details. The quality of the animation is top notch – be they individual hairs of a Viking beard or single flakes of snow in a snowbank, all the finer parts are rendered perfectly. The 3D used in the film is also incredibly immersive, and from the opening dragon race to the last frame of the film, you are drawn in to a whole world which feels truly alive.

When Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara) discover some dragon poachers led by Eret (Kit Harington), they discover the existence of a warlord called Drago Bludvist who is amassing an army of dragons. They rush back to tell Stoick of the threat, then Hiccup takes it upon himself to negotiate peace with Drago.

On the way, Hiccup runs into a famed dragon liberator called the Dragon Rider, who takes him captive. Renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual consultant once more for this film, and his touch is evident throughout. Unusual for an animated film, its fantastic use of lighting (chiefly from the dragons' flames) dramatizes the proceedings nicely, and the composition of the shots, particularly when in flight, is stunning. There is an early shot shown when Hiccup and Astrid fly through a burnt forest which typifies this – the camera tracks left to right quickly: the smoke thick in the air, the scorched boughs appearing through the haze, and the obscured figures zipping through the frame all combine to create a vision of genuine beauty.

Minor spoilers ahead (though they have been thoroughly 'spoiled' in the film's marketing). The Dragon Rider reveals herself to be Valka (Cate Blanchett) – Hiccup's mother - who was thought to have been killed by a dragon almost two decades ago. She lives in an enormous ice cave created by a colossal, ice-breathing alpha dragon, who is the protector of several hundred dragons of its own.

With Drago on the warpath toward Berk, Hiccup must rally his family and friends along with their dragons to fight to save their way of life. The inventiveness on display in the dragon design is clear – there is an iridescent menagerie of creatures spiralling around the cave, and Hiccup's wonder at the sight is bested only by the audience's surrender of disbelief in the face of such an awesome sight. The characters themselves are well-rounded and real. Hiccup is caught between the allures of learning everything about the dragons from his mother and becoming the village chieftain like his father. His internal fight to reconcile these is what gives his character a real arc, and the continuation of his journey to becoming a true chief is what make the promise of a third film something to look forward to. Toothless the dragon is also a wonderful creation.

Sitting somewhere between a slinking cat and a fiercely loyal dog, Hiccup's steed is the source of many of the film's numerous laughs, and a surprisingly complete characters in its own right.

The music from John Powell is spot on throughout. Largely orchestral, it manages to mix in some bagpipes to match the (arguably anachronistic) Scottish brogue of most of the Vikings. The score truly soars in the track Flying with Mother, a theme laced with choral vocals which is at once delicately beautiful and rousing. The film is dazzlingly energetic from start to finish, and is aimed at kids and adults alike. Fans of the first film will be convinced this is a franchise worth caring about. Newcomers will be converted and convinced to hunt down the first film. There be dragons in the village of Berk, but the fun never drags in this film.

- Reviewed by Callum Ryan, an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

How to Train Your Dragon 2, starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, America Ferrara, Craig Ferguson. 102 minutes. Rated PG (Mild fantasy themes and violence). 20th Century Fox. Showing now.

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