Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, David Strathairn
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 150 min
Opens : 13 January 2022 (Exclusive to Cathay Cineplexes)
Rating : M18

All of Guillermo del Toro’s feature films have included elements of horror or fantasy. One could be forgiven for thinking Nightmare Alley is the same, but it is not. This adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, which was earlier adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power, is a neo-noir psychological thriller.

Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins a travelling circus as a carny, doing odd jobs and studying how the various performers’ tricks work. Stan learns mentalism from Zeena Kurmbein (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), who perform a psychic act. In the meantime, he falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act involves her pretending to be electrocuted. Stan is horrified at the way the carnival boss Clem (Willem Dafoe) treats the “geeks,” alcoholic, drug-addicted bums who bite the heads off chickens for paying spectators. Stan and Molly eventually leave the circus, establishing their own act. Psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) attempts to expose Stan’s act, and he gradually falls under her spell, a nguishing Molly. As Lilith draws on Stan’s skillset to stage an elaborate and deadly con, one question arises: is Stan innocent, or a willing co-conspirator?

Del Toro is known for being an atmospheric filmmaker, and Nightmare Alley is brimming with atmosphere. Gorgeously shot and designed, it evokes the feeling of noir movies in an affectionate, layered way. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen plays deftly with light and shadow, as the movie takes viewers from the grimy carny world to the gleam of Chicago high society. While Nightmare Alley is a marked departure from the kind of movies del Toro is known for, many of his trademarks are still present, and is reminiscent of Crimson Peak in many respects. The allure of the movie is that while it takes place in the real world, it feels as if the tendrils of the supernatural are creeping along the edges. Nightmare Alley is moody and deliberately depressing in a way that is somewhat surprising given the warmth present in many of del Toros’ other movies, but also fits the source material.

For all its atmosphere, Nightmare Alley is often challenging to engage with emotionally. It’s two movies: the first one at the circus with the carnies, the second in Chicago high society with the femme fatale psychologist. The movie is 150 minutes long, and while the set-up at the circus is necessary, perhaps it doesn’t require over an hour. Indeed, Cate Blanchett, who is second billed, makes her first appearance over a third of the way into the movie. Stan is maybe the first protagonist of this type in del Toro’s filmography: someone who is charming, but whom we are meant to suspect. It’s a far cry from the loveable but misunderstood monsters who often appear in the director’s movies. Suffice it to say, this is no The Shape of Water. Granted, it’s not a bad thing that del Toro isn’t repeating himself, but Nightmare Alley is sometimes straight-up nasty by design, which can be off-putting. Del Toro is sometimes criticised for relying too heavily on references to existing films and other media, and in Nightmare Alley, he is operating in full-on noir mode. Audiences who recognise the style and are registering all the little flourishes might find themselves held at arm’s length from the story.

Del Toro is a filmmaker whom actors often enthusiastically say they want to work with, so it is no surprise that the cast is stacked. Bradley Cooper is alternately sympathetic and slimy, playing a con artist who will make audiences wonder how much of what he’s up to is strictly for survival. This is a role that Leonardo DiCaprio was initially attached to, which makes sense. It starts out restrained, before becoming flashier.

Rooney Mara turns in a quietly sad, endearing performance as an innocent drawn into Stan’s web, while Cate Blanchett plays a textbook femme fatale with a knowing wink. Everywhere else one looks, there are character actors of a high calibre, including many who have collaborated with del Toro before. Willem Dafoe as an unscrupulous carny boss and Richard Jenkins as the wealthy mark of a con are the highlights.

Summary: An atmospheric, dark tale, Nightmare Alley is largely bereft of the warmth which lurks beneath the surface of many Guillermo del Toro movies. Stepping outside his comfort zone of supernatural horror and sci-fi, Nightmare Alley is a stylistic exercise in the noir genre. Unfortunately, the overlong movie often feels inert up until the very end, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. This is an intriguing but frustrating effort from the auteur, indicating interesting things to come, but straying from what has worked in his earlier films.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World review

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Director : Dean DeBlois
Cast : Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gerard Butler
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 44 mins
Opens : 31 January 2019
Rating : PG

            Audiences have followed Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon friend Toothless through thick and thin. The bond between the two has made the How to Train Your Dragon series one of the most resonant ‘a boy and his X’ tales of this generation. The journey taken by Hiccup and Toothless concludes in the final instalment in the trilogy.

It has been a year since the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup and his friends have been conducting rescue missions, freeing captured dragons and bringing them back to Berk. Berk has become a haven where humans and dragons live in harmony, just as Hiccup has always dreamed. However, Berk is becoming overcrowded. Meanwhile, Hiccup faces pressure from Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to marry Astrid (America Ferrara), becoming the fully-fledged chief Berk needs as its leader.

Toothless comes across a female Fury dragon, dubbed a ‘Light Fury’ by Astrid. He is immediately smitten with her, but she proves an elusive mate. Toothless and his prospective girlfriend are in grave danger, as the notorious dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) has made it his mission to slay every Night Fury in existence. Hiccup recalls the stories his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) told him of a mythical lost world populated entirely by dragons, dubbed ‘the Hidden World’. Hiccup and Toothless go off in search of the Hidden World, as the future of mankind’s coexistence with dragons hangs in the balance.

The How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy is a classic coming-of-age tale, and this film brings the story to a bittersweet-but-satisfying close. Audiences have grown up alongside Hiccup and Toothless – the first film was released nine years ago. Director Dean DeBlois expands the world and the mythos of the series but never loses sight of the bond between Hiccup and Toothless that is at its core.

The film is beautifully animated – the titular Hidden World is a breath-taking subterranean paradise, and the chaotic, bustling Berk bursts with inventive design elements that accommodate the coexistence of humans and dragons on the same island. The flight shared by Toothless and the Light Fury recalls the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence from the 1978 Superman film. Since the film centres on Toothless falling in love, there’s more of a giddy romanticism to the spectacle and less emphasis on action than in the previous instalments.

The returning voice cast is excellent, with Baruchel portraying a Hiccup who has further come into his own. Hiccup’s life has been shaped by trauma and tragedy, but he is also surrounded by love and support. Audiences have stood at several crossroads alongside Hiccup and seeing his character arc complete in this film is expectedly emotional.

Ferrara’s Astrid is a badass who’s also an understanding partner and responsible leader. We see how Hiccup and Astrid complement each other and witness them reach adulthood, on the brink of a life together as chief and chieftess of Berk.

The film’s portrayal of the courtship between Toothless and the Light Fury is cute and filled with awkward relatable moments. There’s a slinky mystique to the Light Fury and seeing Toothless infatuated to the point where he can’t function normally is delightful. As the film progresses, Hiccup must come to terms with the possibility that he and Toothless must part ways. The Hidden World exhibits a maturity that continues this series’ penchant for being a little deeper and a little more honest about life’s ups and downs than many other animated film series are.

While Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) all have their funny moments, these supporting comedic characters sometimes distract from the rest of the movie. The back-and-forth bickering dynamic among Hiccup and Astrid’s friends is the closest the film comes to feeling like some other Dreamworks Animation movies that use comic relief characters and smart aleck quips as a crutch.

F. Murray Abraham sounds like he’s having a fun time conjuring up a little bit of Salieri from Amadeus as the villainous Grimmel. However, it’s clear that the villain isn’t the focus of the film, and as such he come off feeling like a middling Marvel Cinematic Universe villain. Like the second film’s villain Drago, Grimmel is a dragon hunter, because the human villain in a How to Train Your Dragon film is unlikely to be a Lex Luthor-esque CEO.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does reuse certain story and visual elements from earlier in the series, but it also gives us rich character development and a Toothless who falls in love. There will be tears and the film’s final scene is a perfectly-calibrated blend of closure and a sense of longing for more. It’s a great note to leave the series; one can only hope any potential spinoffs don’t tamper with how The Hidden World wraps things up.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thor: Ragnarok – Meet The Characters

For inSing

Thor: Ragnarok – meet the characters

Get reacquainted with the God of Thunder and meet his new allies and foes

By Jedd Jong

This week, the Norse god of Thunder/Avenger Thor returns to theatres in Thor: Ragnarok, which promises to be a wild and woolly cosmic adventure. Under the direction of New Zealander filmmaker Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok looks set to be crammed with humour, action and eye-catching visual splendour.

This adventure finds our hero stripped of his armour and his magical hammer Mjolnir, imprisoned on the other side of the universe and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena. Meanwhile, Hela, the goddess of death herself, makes a play for control of Thor’s home Asgard and the realms beyond it.

Before watching the latest Marvel movie, here’s a quick rundown of some of the characters we’ll see again, and some whom we’re meeting for the first time, in Thor: Ragnarok.

#1: THOR (Chris Hemsworth)

The God of Thunder is a cocky, self-assured character, so it’s no surprise that many stories see him being humbled and brought down to earth. That was a key part of his original arrival on earth, and in this film, Thor is defeated by Hela and held captive on the planet Sakaar. Hemsworth had considerable say in shaping the story, saying “I got a bit bored of myself and thought we’ve got to try something different.” Since Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner haven’t had much interaction beyond the latter punching out the former in The Avengers, Hemsworth requested that the Hulk play a major role in Thor: Ragnarok. While some viewers might mourn the loss of Thor’s luscious locks, Hemsworth found Thor’s fuss-free new hairdo quite liberating. “It allowed the whole thing to take on a different attitude. It felt like a completely different character,” Hemsworth said.

#2: LOKI (Tom Hiddleston)

Tom Hiddleston has become this generation’s runaway unlikely sex symbol, winning legions of female fans with his seductive, darkly charming performance as Loki, the god of Mischief. Hiddleston has had the privilege of playing the role across multiple films – typically, supervillains in comic book movies don’t last more than two films. Since the conclusion of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been ruling Asgard in the guise of his adoptive father Odin, and his reign has been all about self-aggrandisation at the expense of good governance. In serving his own ego, Loki has ignored the looming threats to Asgard, chief among them being Hela herself. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hiddleston had fun “trying to find new ways for him to be mischievous”, while also further exploring Loki’s insecurities. “The idea that Thor might be indifferent to Loki is troubling for him, because that’s a defining feature of his character is, I don’t belong in the family; my brother doesn’t love me; I hate my brother,” Hiddleston reasoned. Thor and Loki must reluctantly work together, but we know that as is always the case with Loki, things are never what they seem.

#3: HELA (Cate Blanchett)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe adds yet another Oscar-winning thespian to its ranks in the form of Cate Blanchett. The character of Hela is based on the Norse deity Hel, the ruler of the underworld also called Hel. Hela is yet another iteration of the “long-buried evil entity breaks free” archetype: “”She’s been locked away for millennia getting more and more cross, and then, with a mistake, she gets unleashed and she ain’t getting back in that box.” In the comics, Hela’s cape enhances her physical strength and maintains her youth. Hela can manifest weapons at will, and wears an elaborate headdress which she can also use as a weapon. The headdress is a defining part of the character’s design, but was cumbersome for Blanchett to wear, so Blanchett performed a portion of the role using motion capture technology. To prepare for the physically intensive role, Blanchett trained with stuntwoman and oft-collaborator of Quentin Tarantino Zoë Bell, and Hemsworth’s personal trainer Luke Zocchi, studying the Brazilian dance-infused martial art Capoeira.

#4: THE GRANDMASTER (Jeff Goldblum)

Jeff Goldblum might well be the best part of Thor: Ragnarok, as Jeff Goldblum is wont to be. The Grandmaster is an Elder of the Universe who pits lesser beings against each other in battles for his own amusement. Two other Elders of the Universe, Taneleer Tivan/The Collector and Ego the Living Planet, have appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy films. The Grandmaster can be seen dancing during the end credits of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. In some versions, the Grandmaster and the Collector are brothers. The Grandmaster is so powerful, that in one story, he controlled DC’s Justice League in a game against the DC villain Krona, who controlled the Avengers. Goldblum describes the Grandmaster as “a hedonist, a pleasure-seeker, an enjoyer of life and tastes and smells.” While the character has blue skin in the comics, Waititi opted to let Goldblum retain his own skin tone, because he didn’t want the character to invoke the blue-skinned alien Goldblum played in the comedy Earth Girls are Easy.

#5: VALKYRIE (Tessa Thompson)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe debut of Valkyrie, a key supporting chacrater in the Thor comics who was, at one point, set to appear in Thor: The Dark World. The character is based on the shieldmaiden Brynhildr, a formidable warrior from ancient Germanic mythology. Valkyrie is not to be trifled with, and is a former soldier in Odin’s elite troops who has become a mercenary working for the Grandmaster. Valkyrie is traditionally depicted as white, and Thompson is of African, South-American and European descent. Director Waititi is adamant that the casting is not to fulfil diversity criteria: “I’m not obsessed with the idea that you have to cast someone just to tick a box… You should cast people because they’re talented,” Waititi said. The director also stated he did not want the character to be “boring and pretty”, but someone would “be even more of the ‘guy’ character than the guys.”

The character is usually seen in the comics wearing armour, but Thompson said “she’s such a bad ass that she doesn’t need a lot of metal to protect her. I’m essentially in leather.” The character is equal to and in some ways superior to Thor, changing the dynamic between Thor and the female lead, who in the two previous Thor films was Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Valkyrie is set to appear in future MCU movies, and Thompson has pitched an all-female Marvel movie to studio boss Kevin Feige. “Just to be the girlfriend or the wife…to not have your own agency is something that I just can’t relate to because I don’t see it in my life,” Thompson said of the roles often given to women in action films.

#6: HEIMDALL (Idris Elba)

As Heimdall, the Asgardian keeper of the Bifröst Bridge, Idris Elba did not get a huge amount to do in the first two Thor films. Perhaps that will change with the third instalment. No longer clad in gleaming golden armour, Heimdall has gone into exile after Hela’s invasion of Asgard, living in the woods as a wild man. Elba was notoriously outspoken about not enjoying the process of making the Marvel movies, calling them “torture”. While promoting Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba griped about having to go to London while in production on Mandela for contractually-obligated reshoots. “There I was, in this stupid harness, with this wig and this sword and these contact lenses. It ripped my heart out,” he said. This go-round, however, Elba seems to have enjoyed himself. “The last one [Ragnarok] was fun,” he said. “The others weren’t fun. They’re work. But on this one, Taika was great,” Elba said, praising the film’s director.

#7: BRUCE BANNER/THE HULK (Mark Ruffalo)

At the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Hulk was seen in a Quinjet, flying off to some unknown destination. Kevin Feige intended to keep it ambiguous where Hulk would end up, and fans speculated that Marvel were setting up for a Planet Hulk movie. In the comics, Planet Hulk is the storyline in which a group of genius Marvel characters called the Illuminati launch Hulk into space. He ends up on the planet Sakaar, becoming a gladiator and eventually taking over the planet. Elements of this story are incorporated into Thor: Ragnarok. Ruffalo discussed a solo Hulk with Feige, but because Universal Studios holds the rights to any Hulk-led films, this proved untenable, and Hulk was made a supporting character in Thor: Ragnarok. The character is evolved further, and now has a limited vocabulary beyond the grunts and roars we’ve heard from the Hulk in earlier MCU movies. “He’s much more of a character than the green rage machine you’ve seen in the Avengers movies,” Ruffalo said. “He’s got a swagger. He’s like a god.” In the film, the Hulk persona has been repressing the Banner side for years, and the film marks a further separation of the two personas. Hulk’s character arc in Thor: Ragnarok is set to carry on into Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel.

Thor: Ragnarok movie review

For inSing

THOR: RAGNAROK 

Director : Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Genre : Comics/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) were absent from Captain America: Civil War. In this Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure, we learn of the travails these characters faced on the other-side of the universe.

After the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruling Asgard as a vainglorious charlatan king. Loki’s lack of leadership has left Asgard vulnerable to attack from Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death who has come to claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

In the aftermath of a struggle against Hela, Thor and Loki find themselves stranded on the planet Sakaar. Thor, without his trusty hammer Mjolnir, is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of Sakaar’s ruler, the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor realises that his opponent is the Hulk, who has been on Sakaar fighting as the Grandmaster’s champion for the last two years. Thor must convince his fellow Avenger to help him on his quest to defeat Hela and save Asgard. Joining Thor, Loki and the Hulk is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), formerly a member of an elite Asgardian fighting force who has become a bounty hunter in the Grandmaster’s employ. Back on Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba), the guardian of the Bifrost bridge, has disappeared into the woods, trying to save as many Asgardians as he can from Hela’s wrath. In facing off against the goddess of death, our heroes must prevent Ragnarok, the end of days, from coming to pass.

Thor: Ragnarok is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, continuing the MCU’s penchant for unconventional director choices. This movie looked from the trailers like it was going to be a whole lot of fun, and it is. However, perhaps the end of days shouldn’t be “a whole lot of fun” – or at least, be something more than that. The MCU has sometimes gotten flack for being a little too flippant and quippy in its tone, at the expense of meaningful drama. The two MCU films we’ve gotten earlier this year, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, packed in plenty of humour, but also had genuine heart when it counted the most. Thor: Ragnarok does not fare as well as those films in this regard.

Despite its tonal issues, there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok is supremely entertaining. There is never a dull moment and the film delivers all the dazzling, meticulously-rendered visual effects spectacle we’ve come to expect from this franchise. This is by far the biggest film Waititi has made, and with the production support built into Marvel Studios, he acquits himself admirably. The central throw down between Thor and Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena is well choreographed, and the colourful, eye-popping design of Sakaar is a nice homage to artist Jack Kirby.

Thor: Ragnarok might be too funny for its own good, but the central cast displays excellent comic timing. Hemsworth is easily the most likeable he’s ever been in the role, playing a character who is put through the wringer, but doesn’t lose his boyish enthusiasm and charm. He also spends the entire movie showing off his truly impressive biceps, and yes, there’s a requisite shirtless scene.

While Hiddleston is a delight as Loki, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how much damage he’s done over the course of previous films, even when those events are name-checked. He’s a trickster, but he’s also dangerous, and that latter element seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture turned out to be one of the best MCU villains thus far. Unfortunately, Hela emerges as a far more formulaic antagonist. This reviewer was really looking forward to seeing what an actress of Blanchett’s stature would do with the role, but there really isn’t much more to the character than strutting about and smirking seductively. Hela plainly states her motivations in an expository speech, and while there are ample displays of how formidable she is, the threat never truly takes hold – especially since so much of the film is spent away from Asgard.

Hulk’s depiction in this film represents an evolution in the right direction – he’s now slightly more articulate, when previously all he was capable of was roaring and grunting. While the dynamic that develops between Thor and the Hulk is interesting and amusing, there’s the niggling sense that elements of the Planet Hulk story arc from the comics have been shoehorned into this film. A standalone film based on Planet Hulk might have worked better, that is indeed what Ruffalo wanted, but rights issues prevented that from happening.

While Thompson doesn’t physically resemble Valkyrie as the character is often drawn in the comics, she has the swagger to pull off the character as written and looks to be enjoying herself in the role. This is a warrior who’s one of the dudes, but who is suppressing pain from her past. She’s pretty much any given Michelle Rodriguez character.

Goldblum is basically playing himself, but as a hedonistic Elder of the Universe. It’s an entertaining performance, but Goldblum never disappears into the role, and doesn’t register as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

There is one scene in the film in which a phalanx of Valkyries, astride their winged horses, charge into battle against Hela. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring tableau that recalls the paintings of Gustave Doré. Alas, this is but a tiny part of Thor: Ragnarok. This is not a bad film, far from it, but it just doesn’t feel like a Thor film. It feels like a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Thor happens to be in. Where previous MCU movies have balanced the humour with drama and emotion, the jokes here undercut the desired end-of-the-world stakes. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok isn’t an exceedingly enjoyable time, but it could’ve been more than that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

How To Train Your Dragon 2

As published in Issue #53 of F*** Magazine

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 

Director: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller
Genre: Action, Adventure, Animation,
Run Time: 103 mins
Rating: PG
Opens: 12 June 2014

From the Mother of Dragons to Smaug the Terrible, those mythical winged reptiles we know, love and sometimes fear have re-entered pop culture in a big way. 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, inspired by Cressida Cowell’s book series, had a part to play in it as well. Five years have passed since the events of that film, humans now living peacefully alongside dragons in the Nordic island village of Berk. Hiccup (Baruchel), poised to inherit the role of chieftain from his father Stoick (Butler), has grown inseparable from his beloved Night Fury dragon, Toothless. Hiccup and Toothless stumble across a remote ice cavern, a secret dragon haven and home to Valka (Blanchett), a mysterious, feral dragon master. They also come into conflict with the fearsome dragon hunter Drago Bludvist (Hounsou), with whom Stoick had a treacherous encounter in the past.  


            The first How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best “A boy and his X” tales ever put on screen, right up there with the likes of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrialand Iron Giant. It was also a breath-taking visual feast and in that regard, the sequel ups the ante. The flying sequences are as exhilarating as ever and the 3D effects are stunning, particularly when large ice structures break apart and fall towards the camera. The action sequences are fluid and dynamic and the character animation is lively and detailed. If you were struck by how adorable Toothless was in the first film (and really, who wasn’t) prepare to go “d’aww” and giggle more times than you can care to count. The animators optimise every inch of the cuddly Night Fury to convey his emotions: he’s swift and nimble one minute and friendly and silly the next. Oh, how we’ve missed Toothless on the big screen. This film also boasts a career best musical score from composer John Powell, who snagged his first Oscar nomination for How to Train Your Dragon.

            It pains us a little to say this, but when it comes to the story, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a mild case of sequilitis. How to Train Your Dragon ended with such an equilibrium, the relationships between Hiccup and his father, between Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrera) and between Hiccup and Toothless all arriving at a satisfying place. We’re sure DreamWorks fully intended for it to spawn a franchise, but it concluded so neatly that there didn’t seem to be too many places to go in a sequel. The interactions between the characters are still fun to watch and there are still genuine emotional moments, but this just lacks the warmth and drive of its predecessor. We’ve also got a villain who’s simply kind of there, Drago’s design strongly reminiscent of Shan Yu from Disney’s Mulan. An attempt is made to connect him with Stoick’s past and Djimon Hounsou sounds sufficiently gruff and menacing, but Drago ends up being little more than a generic physically imposing bad guy, complete with scars and dreadlocks. His flame-retardant dragon skin cape is pretty cool, though.

            This reviewer’s theory as to why How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best movies in the DreamWorks Animation oeuvre is that it feels the most Pixar-like. This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but DreamWorks’ trademark all-star voice cast and hip, pop culture referencing humour did wear on many moviegoers’ nerves. How to Train Your Dragon didn’t have a gaggle of marquee name A-listers in the recording booth and was all the better for it. All of the major cast members from the first one, including Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera and Craig Ferguson, return here. Baruchel doesn’t have a typically heroic voice, and it works for Hiccup. Here, we get a Hiccup who has matured, Baruchel adjusting his performance accordingly. Cate Blanchett is an excellent addition to the cast, her delivery at once ethereal and earthy. Apparently, DreamWorks didn’t want a spoiler regarding her character Valka to be revealed, but marketing pushed its inclusion in the trailers anyway. It really does work better if you go into the film blind, hence our beating around the bush in this review. 

            Fans of the first film are unlikely to find anything to hate with the continuing adventures of Hiccup and Toothless. However, given how heartfelt How to Train Your Dragon was and how riveting the story of Hiccup and Toothless’ mutual bond was, one can’t help but feel let down by the sequel. There’s also a fair bit of mood whiplash going on, we get lots of pleasant humour but the transition to the rather heavy and dramatic climax is a tad sudden. Still, there are worse cinematic locales to return to than the island of Berk, and we have to admit we derived some glee from seeing those poor frightened sheep in jeopardy during the Quidditch-like dragon race at the beginning of the film.


Summary: How to Train Your Dragon 2 has sweeping visuals, great music and more of Toothless being cute, but also suffers from a weaker story, treading water in places.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong