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This image released by A24 Films shows Guy Pearce in a scene from ‘The Rover.’ (AP)
Smart writing, visuals in ‘Dragon’ A new animal kingdom for Michod in ‘The Rover’

You thought it was tricky to train a dragon? It’s even trickier to take a much-admired animated film and make a sequel that feels satisfying and worthwhile. And it’s harder still to balance the competing needs of stretching the story in new directions but retaining the guiding spirit of the original enough to make fans happy. It’s nice to be able to report that “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” written and directed by Dean DeBlois, does all that tricky stuff pretty darned well. And you’ll be happily surprised at the new twists it takes — sort of like getting an unexpected second candy bar in the vending machine. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” doesn’t play it safe, and that’s why it’s the rare sequel that doesn’t feel somewhat stale.
The story returns us to Berk, where our young Viking hero, Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel), lives and frolics with his devoted dragon, Toothless, whom he befriended in the first movie, with momentous ramifications for human-dragon relations. Five years have passed, and now Berk is a virtual playground for dragons and Vikings alike. An amusing opening sequence shows the new pursuit of dragon-racing, a game that vaguely resembles Quidditch. And adjustments have been made to enhance dragon-human coexistence: for example, an aqueduct system, to quickly put out those pesky dragon-breath fires.

Exploring
Hiccup, though, isn’t into the games — he’s attracted to the beautiful skies, and spends his time exploring them, aboard Toothless, adding to the map he’s making of the world. His first scene of airborne frolic with Toothless is absolutely beautiful, and a sign of the visual delights to come. Hiccup’s restless nature, though, is at odds with the aspirations of his burly father, Stoick the Vast (a sweetly gruff Gerard Butler), who wants Hiccup to take up new responsibilities. But Hiccup doesn’t feel leadership is really his thing. That’s what he tells spunky Astrid (America Ferrera, back from the first film), who is now his girlfriend, as well as a fellow explorer. (Other famous returning voices are Jonah Hill as Snotlout and Kristen Wiig as Ruffnut.) One day Hiccup and Astrid make an ominous discovery: A trapper’s fort. Eret, son of Eret (Kit Harington) is cocky and ambitious. But his boss? He’s evil. That would be Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a vicious villain who’s building a dragon army. Hiccup resolves to stop him.

And someone else, he learns — a mysterious figure in the skies — is also fighting Drago. Her name is Valka, and she is, shockingly, none other than Hiccup’s mother, long presumed dead. In fact, Valka — voiced by Cate Blanchett in an elegant, otherworldly accent — has spent these long years saving dragons. The scene in which she shows him the fantastic oasis where these rescued dragons live — a tropical wonderland inside a giant ice formation — is a marvel of color and inventive design, probably the prettiest scene in the film.
 

For a while, it seems like a perfect family reunion. But happiness is short-lived. Valka doesn’t believe, as her family does, that dragons can live with humans — humans can be too cruel. And Drago, with his violent plans, is proving her right.
Without giving away too much, this is where the film travels into darker areas than its predecessor, displaying an admirable maturity. Many animated tales involve dashing acts of bravery, but rarely do they show the possible tragic consequences of such acts. Many tears will be shed over the scene where Hiccup learns that bad things can happen to good people. And there’s another lesson here, too: People — or creatures — who love you sometimes can still hurt you. Relationships have their limits. Animated films for kids don’t routinely address such matters. Kudos to the creators here, who took a terrific first film and made a sequel that, both visually and thematically, lives up to that promise.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for adventure action and some mild rude humor.” Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.
 

“It’s getting howly out there,” says the Australian director David Michod, peering out at a torrential downpour that’s pounding the southern coast of France.
The stormy backdrop is fittingly portentous for Michod as he discusses his much anticipated follow-up to the Oscar-nominated debut “Animal Kingdom.” He calls “The Rover,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and hits theaters Friday, “a portrait of a menacing and damaged near-future.”
It takes place 10 years after a vaguely defined “collapse” that has left Australia’s currency worthless. The Outback is a fearful, murderous wasteland of gun-toting bandits and wanton depravity. Guy Pearce plays a terse, indifferent wanderer pursuing his one possession — his car — after a band of thieves steal it, leaving behind one of their members, a half-wit played by Robert Pattinson.


“I realized when I was writing it that I was projecting onto Guy’s character a lot of the anger and despair I felt about the state of the world, the fact that bankers could destroy economies and then get away with it,” says Michod. “Simultaneously, we’re presented with the great moral challenge of our time, which is dealing with climate change, and yet no one seems to want to do anything about it. You throw your hands up in the air and go, ‘We’re destroying ourselves and we don’t care.’” It took Michod four years to find his footing after the runaway success of 2010’s “Animal Kingdom,” a deliciously dark crime family saga that won critical acclaim, a record number of Australian Film Institute awards and an Academy Award nomination for co-star Jacki Weaver. The film announced Michod’s arrival, with some calling him a Scorsese from Down Under. Afterward, he spent years reading scripts and fielding entreaties from Hollywood.
“That couple of years after was strange. Because my life changed, I felt like suddenly an entire world of possibilities had opened to me. And I wanted to explore them,” says Michod. “I wasn’t roaming the Earth depressed, but there was a level of anxiety there because I did after a while start to go: ‘I don’t know what my second movie is.’”


He ultimately realized he wanted to make a movie “from the ground up.” “The Rover” was an idea Michod and his friend Joel Edgerton (“The Great Gatsby,” “Warrior”) first conceived of years earlier: a lean, minimalistic thriller with exposition meted out in the most judicious of drips. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is a clear touchstone.
Michod, 41, wrote the lead specifically for Pearce, who was the lone established star in “Animal Kingdom.” The movie brought international renown to the loose Aussie filmmaking collective dubbed Blue-Tongue Films, of which Michod and Edgerton are members.
“I sort of keep forgetting I was in it,” Pearce says of “Animal Kingdom.” “I was only on set for a week and a half and those guys, they lived it. It’s a hard one to feel connected on the same sort of level when it’s changing everyone’s lives.” Reconvening for “The Rover” was the first time they saw each other since shooting “Animal Kingdom.” Pearce recalls greeting Michod: “‘So, your life’s been a bit different, then, since I saw you in 2009.’


He’s like, ‘Yeah. Had a meeting with Brad Pitt the other day.’” (AP)
Michod, who splits his time between Sydney and Los Angeles, is now developing a film with Pitt about Gen. Stanley McChrystal called “The Operators,” based on Michael Hastings’ book.
The director’s rising star also attracted Pattinson, the “Twilight” actor, who has often played still, cool characters that trade on his severe looks. But in “The Rover,” he’s received the best reviews of his career for playing a fidgeting, bloodied misfit with a stuttering Southern accent.
“There was something about the speech pattern,” says Pattinson. “When you’re reading something, it’s very rare that you actually want to say it out loud. As soon as I started reading this, it was just a fun voice. You become really annoying and run into the other room: ‘Listen to this!’ And they say, ‘What are you talking about? I can’t understand anything you’re saying.’” “The Rover” may seem similar to other visions of bleak futures, but Michod says the film isn’t about its genre. “As soon as you present a dystopian vision that is the result of some kind of apocalypse, it’s like it gives the movie license to become popcorn,” says Michod. “I wanted this thing to feel like it was just a natural extension of the forces that are bubbling around us today.”

By Jocelyn Noveck

 

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