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How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

It's easy to forget now how the original How To Train Your Dragon did not exactly arrive surrounded by an enormous amount of hype. Dreamworks Animation were seen by many to be permanently in Pixar's shadow, so the adaptation of Cressida Cowell's children's book series wasn't on that many critic's (or fans) radars. On paper it didn't sound overly promising either, with a cast with names such as Hiccup and Snotlout making it sound like pure kiddie film territory. In the hands of Lilo and Stitch directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, however, it became something so much more than the sum of its parts. It became a film to instantly fall in love with. It's now so firmly entrenched as an animated classic, it's easy to forget that at the time it was once of those films that relied on word of mouth. The sequel -this time helmed by DeBlois flying solo- has if anything the opposite problem. So beloved is the original, that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has an awful lot to live up to. Could it ever stand a chance of living up to its illustrious predecessor? The eagle-eyed amongst you will have already have noticed the little AFA Classic badge up there in the corner. So we think it's safe to say that's a "yes".

Set five years after the events of the first movie,  the residents of the Viking village of Berk live in peaceful harmony with their dragons. It's not to last though, as Hiccup and Toothless find themselves caught up in a battle with a fearsome stranger who commands a dragon army that threatens to destroy all that they hold dear.

While the first movie largely concentrated the events in and around the island of Burk, the second film strays much further afield. In doing so it opens the film's scope right up, creating a richly detailed and beautifully rendered setting- a masterpiece of worldbuilding. It does exactly what a good sequel should, building on the original to explore its universe in more detail- and on a much larger scale.

And what scale! The film is absolutely full of beautiful vistas, vast landscapes and epic set pieces. The series' trademark flight sequences continue to be a highlight, equalling (or sometimes even surpassing) anything found in the original.  Even the dragons are on a whole other scale this time around, both in sheer number (there are hundreds of the critters) but often in scale. The colossal size of the Alpha dragon is something to behold as this sequel takes the design work up a notch. DeBlois provides dozens of make-your-hair-stand-one-end moments, creating a real sense of wonder rarely found outside the work of Hayao Miyazaki.

Regardless of the "wow" factor though, it was the bond between Hiccup and Toothless that really made the first film work. Luckily their bond here is as strong and believable as ever. Toothless continues to be imbued with elements of behaviour that will be familiar to cat or dog owners. It's a genius touch that makes the film easily connect with anybody who has ever had a strong connection with a furry friend. The sequel only builds on this to make it even more effective second time around. If you don't want a pet dragon by the time this is over, then we'd have to wonder if you're even human.

Characterisation is strong across the board, as is the relationships between the human characters. Hiccup's bonds with father Stoick and girlfriend Astrid have a warmth and emotional honesty to them than more believable than this film's cartoonish style would suggest. While likeable and feisty in the first film, Astrid takes a bigger part this time around. She's a strong character who manages to be much more than just the 'girlfriend roll', easily equal to Hiccup in many ways. If there is a weak link in the characterisation, villainous Drago just doesn't really have enough screentime to be properly developed. He's a suitably menacing villain though, with a fearsome look backed up by a memorable voice performance by the excellent Djimon Hounsou.

The brilliant character work means that you are driven to care about the characters that bit more, drawing you further into the story. As a result, a third-act twist even more audacious than the first film's is given extra emotional wallop. It comes as a great surprise and means the second film goes to some much darker places than you might expect- the PG rating is well deserved here.

The first film was blessed with a wonderful, soaring score from John Powell. Fortunately, Powell returns with another excellent soundtrack for the sequel. This time around however, Sigur Ros front-man Jonsi, contributes more than just the opening credits song, creating a soundtrack with a slightly different feel.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a towering achievement, both technically and in storytelling terms. Is it better than the first one? It's hard to say really, as they are aiming for different things, and are both thoroughly successful in their own way. One thing is for sure though- waiting until 2018 for the trilogy closer is going to be tough.