Chuck Koplinski: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' roasts expectations

Chuck Koplinski: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' roasts expectations

Not content to play it safe and give audiences the same old "boy and his dragon" adventure, director Dean DeBlois ups the emotional and thematic stakes in "How to Train Your Dragon 2," an exciting, challenging and emotionally moving film that exceeds expectations by not giving us a children's story but one replete with weighty adult concerns.

Think "The Empire Strikes Back" or "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," and you'll have some idea of the sort of tone DeBlois achieves here. This is a tale that sees its main character grapple with adult concerns for the first time and comes to realize the world does not consist of absolutes and that contending with the unexpected can cause emotional damage that makes a dragon's burn seem like child's play.

Five years have passed since the end of the last film, and much has changed in the kingdom of Berk. Instead of fearing and hunting dragons, the citizens there have embraced them as allies and pets, thanks in large part to the work of Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) who has swayed their opinions with his own firebreather Toothless. Even his father, King Stoick (Gerard Butler) has changed his ways, having converted the village forge from a weapons-making operation to one that constructs dragon-saddles.

Hiccup is content with his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), and all seems right with the world, though he's concerned about filling his father's shoes, as he knows that soon he will have to take his place.

However, things take a turn when the two lovebirds take an excursion one day and come across Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon catcher who has been commissioned to deliver as many of the flying creatures to Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a despot intent on forming a dragon army to conquer the world.

Upon returning to Berk with the news, Hiccup finds his world in turmoil as this impels his father to employ defensive measures to protect his kingdom. However, his son flees in an effort to reason with Drago, prompting Stoick and his loyal friend Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to pursue him in an effort to save the impetuous boy.

The story that ensues doesn't lack its share of surprises as a person from Hiccup and Stoick's past is found. However, as with any great adventure story, so much depends on the villain, and "Dragon 2" sports one of the most memorable ones I've seen in years. Appearing as if he has stepped out of a Wagnerian opera, DeBlois casts this character in a broad, grand manner — imposing physically with his massive body frame and scarred face — skulking about in the shadows. He's a genuinely frightening figure and with grave line-readings from Hounsou, this portrait of uncompromising evil is complete.

DeBlois and his crew set out to create a visually epic film, and they succeed handsomely. To be sure, some of the flying scenes are a bit busy and may cause vertigo for those not accustomed to being astride a dragon. However, sights of the churning vast ocean, a colorful sanctuary and ominous, mist-shrouded isles are rendered in such a meticulous and dramatic manner that one can't help but applaud the craftsmanship employed, as well as DeBlois' keen eye in creating a consistent visual tone that helps buoy the narrative.

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" will surprise many expecting nothing more than an empty child's exercise — it has greater themes it's intent on tackling as Hiccup's transition into adulthood is fraught with peril — both physical and emotional — that changes him irreparably.

The existential journey he takes proves an effective metaphor for the transition we all must take, with the film effectively underscoring that by adhering to a moral code based on selflessness and sacrifice as the only way to soar.

'How to Train Your Dragon 2' ★★★1/2 (out of 4)

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and T.J. Miller.

Directed by Dean DeBlois; produced by Bonnie Arnold; screenplay by Dean DeBlois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell.

A 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. release. 102 minutes. Rated PG (adventure action and some mild rude humor). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Tepid pace drives a stake through "Only Lovers Left Alive." (★★)

Director Jim Jarmusch has always been a very precise, as well as intelligent, director whose films are distinctive in regard to how he's able to create a realistic sense of place.

His urban settings in "Mystery Train," "Night on Earth" and "Coffee and Cigarettes" appear as ghostly, seemingly abandoned areas, the only place the outsiders he focuses on feel at home. The locale of his cult western "Dead Man" feels as if it were taken from a fever dream by Edgar Allan Poe and John Ford, a netherworld in the wilderness where its main character's existential journey seems doomed from the start. The men and women in Jarmusch's films survive in spite of these environments — never thriving but living in defiance of their surroundings.

His latest, "Only Lovers Left Alive," contains all of these trademark elements, but there's a sense that the director may not have anything new to say regarding alienation, living on the fringe and how that affects a person's world view.

The premise is a solid if cliched one that focuses on a married couple whose relationship is in crisis. The twist here is that they're vampires. Eve (Tilda Swinton) is centuries old, a nightwalker who has come to embrace her fate, living each day with a sense of verve that is to be commended; after all, she has lived through plagues, wars and two Bush presidencies and still has a smile on her face. Her husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), is a bit of a gloomy Gus, a bloodsucker who is eager to be rid of his mortal coil as his outlook on the world is one of despair — he refers to mortals as "zombies" and complains we've ruined our blood and water supplies and are capable of much worse.

That Adam has decided to live in Detroit certainly isn't helping his mood, and this move is but one of many obvious metaphors Jarmusch employs to underscore his characters' plights. Motor City is dead — they're dead — Adam is stuck in the past, so he uses antiquated technology — Eve embraces life and has an iPhone — their names match up with well, you get the idea. There's nothing subtle about anything in the film, and to say that's Jarmusch's point, so that it renders the movie a stale, dead quality is, perhaps, to give him too much credit. However, there's no arguing that the deliberate (really slow) pace he adapts is used to emphasize that time is eternal, endless, burdensome for Adam and Eve. The languorous world they're trapped in is tragic for them and in subjecting the viewer to it, albeit in a very small dose, proves effective in driving home this point but fatal in regard to getting us engaged in their plight.

A subplot involving Eve's immature sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) never feels like anything other than a plot device, which is what it is, though John Hurt as the Elizabethan author Christopher Marlowe, who finally clears up who actually wrote Shakespeare's play, is great fun.

In the end, I wish Jarmusch had made this film earlier in his career when he was a bit more eager and able to inject some life into it. Instead, "Only Lovers Left Alive" comes off as more than a bit dead.

"Fault in Our Stars" avoids most of its genre's pitfalls. (★★★)

Director Josh Boone had his work cut out for him with having to bring "The Fault in Our Stars" to the big screen.

Not only did he have a rabid fan base to answer to, but had to navigate the many pitfalls inherent to the tragic love story genre.

Having not read the best-selling novel by John Green, I cannot speak to whether the director remained faithful to the text, but not detecting a massive hue and cry on the Internet regarding this issue tells me he toed the line.

As far as rendering the many potentially melodramatic moments in an overly dramatic fashion, for the most part, Boone is successful, though it must be said he's helped immensely by Shailene Woodley who is able to convey a sense of truth in the most ridiculous of circumstances.

Dealing with cancer as a teenager, Hazel Grace (Woodley) has developed a realistic and only slightly cynical attitude toward her condition. She's as positive as she possibly can be and is weary of making any emotional connections what with the tragic nature of her condition. However, she's unable to resist the charm of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), another cancer victim she meets at a support group she reluctantly attends. Despite her apprehension, Hazel allows herself to enter into a relationship and fall in love with this young man who eagerly embraces life despite having lost a leg to his disease.

The story that develops is predictable in structure as the couple go through highs and lows, dealing primarily with issues of trust and testing their relationship by taking a trip, an improbable journey to Amsterdam which leads to the most effective scene in the film.

Though covering familiar territory, Boone adopts a slow pace in telling his tale, which nearly undercuts the entire enterprise. However, a nice twist involving a reclusive author (Willem Defoe) whom Hazel and Gus admire and meet adds a much-needed spark before the movie heads to its predictable, tragic conclusion.

If anything, the film is saved by Woodley who, like her peer Jennifer Lawrence, seems incapable of delivering a false moment on screen. She is fully present throughout, underplaying the movie's most emotional scenes, thus bringing maturity to the role that makes Hazel's tragic circumstances all the more moving. Woodley is our focal point throughout, and that we're forever looking past Elgort to focus on her speaks to how much better the actress is than the other young performers who share the screen with her.

"The Fault in Our Stars" likely will not take its place alongside cinema's classic love stories, though for the Tweeting-generation, it will speak to their notion of what devotion and romance should be.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuck koplinski@gmail.com.

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