DREAMWORKS Animation’s 2010 hit How to Train Your Dragon was a real delight – and not just because it was a good film featuring Gerard Butler. Combining lovingly crafted and appealing characters, simple but deft plotting, nifty visual gags and soaring action sequences, it suggested the studio hitherto best known for the Shrek series was no longer content to coast by on lazy pop-culture gags and any-celeb-will-do voice casting.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG)
Directed by: Dean DeBlois Voices: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Djimon Hounsou
Star rating: ***
It also proved Pixar didn’t have a monopoly on richly satisfying and emotionally complex family fare. Its ending, after all, left its hero – the callow, eager-to-please Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) – without his lower leg, a surprisingly dark turn of events that nevertheless gave the film a beautiful narrative cohesiveness by making Hiccup even more in synch with his pet dragon Toothless, whose wing he’d accidentally damaged earlier in the film.
With the first film also concluding by having Hiccup convince the inhabitants of the Viking village of Berk that fire-breathers are better friends than foes, the new film – which is set five years on – begins by celebrating all the ways life has improved in the interim. The villagers are now doing a roaring trade in dragon riding equipment, and there’s plenty of entertainment too in the form of Quidditch-style sporting events, albeit with dragons instead of broomsticks. For Hiccup, though, the best thing about this new state of affairs is simply having the freedom to fly with Toothless and glide through the sky with a newly designed, but not yet perfected, winged outfit – something that gives returning director Dean DeBlois plenty of opportunity early on to showcase the wondrous airborne action that made the first film such a thrill.
But sequels need plots, dilemmas and drama too, so even though everything in Berk seems peachy, there’s danger looming in the form of Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a villainous overlord intent on securing world domination by bringing all dragons under his evil control. Hiccup, too, is wrestling with his own internal issues, primarily his reluctance to follow in the footsteps of his father Stoik (Butler), who expects him to step up and succeed him as the village chief – a responsibility he doesn’t think he’ll ever be ready to assume.
Here DeBlois seems hell-bent on transforming How to Train Your Dragon 2 into The Empire Strikes Back with some tone-darkening catastrophe in store for the characters and a much moodier look, particularly as the second act sees Hiccup separated from Toothless and stranded in a frozen ice sanctuary where he learns more about himself than he ever anticipated. Befitting a story determined to satisfy older kids who’ve grown up with the first film, there’s much more fearsome action too, with bigger battle sequences and a greater sense of peril. For parents and other grown-ups more used to getting a fix of dragons these days from Game of Thrones, there’s a nice little nod to the show in the form of Kit Harington, who supplies the voice of a hunky dragon wrangler who soon learns the errors of his initially mercenary ways.
This all makes for a more ambitious film, but it can also make the story seem a little unruly – as if DeBlois hasn’t quite figured out how to train this particular beast and is trying too hard to force it to go in a direction not entirely suited to it. Hiccup’s sojourn to the frozen tundra, for instance, is quite beautiful and full of haunting atmospherics, but it feels a little at odds with the full-blown action of the rest of the film.
Which isn’t to say it shouldn’t have been included. Far from it: it’s actually so good it changes the nature of the movie in such a way as to make its more conventional concluding act feel a little tacked on. Indeed, it’s during this diversion that we’re introduced to the mysterious Valka, a sort of vigilante Dian Fossey of the dragon world who has retreated into this wintry landscape at great personal cost to herself in order to protect the creatures she loves so much. Despite being voiced by Cate Blanchett in a wavering accent that veers from Northern English to soft-spoken Scottish, Valka’s presence adds real emotional depth to the film and deepens our understanding of Hiccup, with whom she forms an immediate bond.
Elsewhere there’s a return for many of the characters from the first film, though Hiccup’s goofy pals (voiced by Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have less to do this time. Ditto Craig Ferguson, whose dentally challenged blacksmith Gobbler was so central to the first film’s comedic charm. The voiceless Toothless, however, remains a wonder. Imbued by the animators with the unconditional love and loyalty of a pet pooch (in a neat touch he’s often to be seen running around the background of shots chasing sticks), he’s the heart and soul of a movie that can occasionally feel a little mechanical.
Cold in July (15)
Directed by: Jim Mickle
Starring: Michael C Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Star rating: ****
As its evocative title implies, Cold in July isn’t much interested in conforming to convention. Beginning as one thing, pulling multiple narrative switches before the first half is over, and changing energy completely with the late introduction of a major character, it’s less a case of not being able to decide what it wants to be as a sign of director and co-writer Jim Mickle’s complete mastery of the crazy story he’s set out to tell.
Adapting the script with Nick Damici from cult US author Joe R Lansdale’s novel of the same name, Mickle kicks things off in hard-edged style as nervy East Texas family man Richard Dane (Michael C Hall, below) shoots an intruder in his house. With blood sprayed across the walls – and in a touch of pulpy brilliance on Mickle’s part, across a photo of Richard’s young son too – he’s unsettled by the incident, more so by the cops’ ain’t-no-big-thing attitude to his slaying of an unarmed man. Resolving to assuage some of his guilt by apologising to his unwitting victim’s newly paroled father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), his noble action only makes things worse for his family as Ben embarks on a Cape Fear-style campaign of intimidation by hanging around his house and leaving bullets in his son’s bed.
To reveal any more plot details risks ruining the film, but when their ensuing feud brings a private investigator by the name of Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) into their midst, the film takes a pleasing turn for the bizarre. Decked out in cowboy couture and driving a crimson Cadillac convertible with “Red Bitch” on the licence plate, Jim Bob’s arrival may be the best entrance of any character in a movie this year and Johnson proceeds to steal every scene he’s in, adding a touch of flamboyance that further upends the concept of masculinity the film seems intent on exploring. Soundtracked with a John Carpenter-esque synth score that enhances the atmosphere of its late 1980s setting, this is a minor gem.
Directed by: Jon Favreau Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt
Star rating: ***
After directing two Iron Man movies and the bloated sci-fi flop Cowboys and Aliens, Jon Favreau indulges in a spot of creative palette cleansing with Chef, a breezy, freewheeling attempt to reconnect with his indie roots as the writer and star of the rat-a-tat guy-com Swingers. Pulling quadruple duty as Chef’s writer, director, producer and star, he certainly seems intent on parlaying that impulse into the plot and themes of the film, which follows a disillusioned chef (Favreau) who quits his job at an upscale, overpriced LA restaurant to buy a food truck and sell gourmet street feasts direct to the people. The catalysing incident even involves a contretemps with a critic (Oliver Platt), allowing Favreau to tap into his own insecurities by having his character, Carl, vent about how much it hurts to have his work torn apart online (even though deep down he knows he’s sold out). This gives the film a bit of spice early on, and certainly adds a dash of realism to the blatant male wish fulfilment going on elsewhere when it becomes clear that Favreau has not only cast Sofia Vergara as the smoking-hot ex-wife who still clearly has feelings for Carl, but also Scarlett Johansson as the smoking-hot restaurant hostess with whom he has a casual, no-strings relationship.
Mercifully, the film is less interested in Carl’s romantic entanglements than it is in his relationship with his young son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who is starting to resent the lack of time he spends with his dad. In a pre-emptive bid to halt their estrangement, Percy’s mother engineers a family vacation for all three that results in the now unemployed Carl buying a truck and embarking on a cross-country trip with Percy that will not only reconnect him to his love of cooking, but also bring the two of them closer together.
Along for the ride is John Leguizamo as Martin, Carl’s former sous chef, and there’s an amusing cameo too from Robert Downey Jr as the first husband of Carl’s ex-wife who, for reasons that are never exactly made clear, wants to set him up in business.
As they hit the road there are, inevitably, a couple of speed bumps along the way, but only a couple. Eschewing melodrama and artificial conflict in order to create a naturalistic rapport between Carl and Percy, Favreau takes care never to overcook things. This is a film about taking the time to rediscover and appreciate the things that make one happy and Favreau structures it as such, revelling in the sourcing, cooking and consumption of food and enjoying the company of characters content to be nothing more than likeable. The end result is undemanding, but not unsatisfying.