Monday, July 14, 2014

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

We've had a bit of a debate in our house recently about what age to start taking Robert to the movies. After all, he's only 4 (and a bit!) and his attention span isn't brilliant at the best of times, but he's at the age when we started taking his brother and we only had to leave a couple of films before he got the hang of it. Going to the movies has always been a big part of our family life (from before we had a family!) so we'd been looking for an opportunity to really get everyone one - even bouncy little monkey-beasts - involved in cinema trips. Ewan's taste is pretty solidly 12A nowadays, but he did want to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and so we leapt on the opportunity for a family day out, albeit one where I was braced for having to leave after an hour or so. But I didn't, and so this review is brought to you courtesy of a very well behaved little boy who really enjoyed his first cinema trip.

The first How to Train Your Dragon was an unexpected gem; a surprisingly heartfelt and restrained movie from a studio I'd started to expect little more from the pop-culture heavy celebrity voicefests. Instead you got a coming of age tale of a boy and his dragon, which may have covered some familiar ground but was certainly very skilfully executed. The sequel follows on from a couple of spin-off series on the Cartoon Network, and picks up five years later, with the people of Berk now fully integrated with the local dragon population and spending their time playing what looked a lot like Dragon Quidditch. All isn't perfect, of course, as Hiccup is increasingly taken with a sense of Wanderlust as his Dad is planning on making his Chief. But soon, of course, a wider problem, in the shape of a fierce, Dragon Taming Warlord, is on the horizon.

The first half of Dragon 2 has a nicely unpredictable air, caused largely by splitting its main cast up and then overlapping them in different ways. Characters go off on their own, then team up with one sub-group, then meet up and then split up again, and for a while the over-familiarity of these sorts of movies was staved off. It particularly benefits Astrid, who gets to be in charge of the supporting cast of the first movie, go off and have her own adventure without needing to be rescued by the main hero. Meanwhile, Hiccup gets to go off and have his own subadventure, more emotional than physical, reuniting his (presumed dead) mother and deal a little bit with his ongoing father issues.

As an adult watching the film the moments between Hiccups parents felt like the emotional centre of the movie; surprisingly complex and subtle and clever. The voice acting adds weight to it, but there is some great animation in a quiet series of sequences that let both characters shine and grow on the screen. The problem with this is twofold - first it starts to flag up what happens later in the film so its less of a shock, and second it means the final act lacks some of that emotional depth. There is no real threat the Hiccup and Toothless will remain separated, compared to the delicacy of reunion between two lovers who haven't seen each other for so long and given up on the hope of ever doing so.

The rest of the movie is as high-quality as you'd expect from modem A-list animated fare. The animation is sumptuous and busy, with tons of background detail in every scene. The direction and voice work are both great. Story-wise, it does settle into a more predictable rhythm as it goes along, but it's a lot of fun nevertheless, and has a decent, if a little monochromatic, villain. The kids loved it, which is the main thing of course.