How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG, 102 mins)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG, 102 mins)

Director: Dean DeBlois

4 stars

With the remarkable success of Frozen seeing Disney wrestle the animation crown back from Pixar in recent months, Dreamworks have been waiting quietly in the shadows to pounce and stake their claim as masters of the art.

They're not going to do it with this good-but-not-quite-great sequel to 2010's How to Train Your Dragon, but if it's a prelude to a strong trilogy closer, with the third part due in a couple of years, then the groundwork will have been worth it.

This return to the Viking village of Berk is set five years after the events of the first film, with dragons and humans now living together in harmony since Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) discovered the beasts don't mean any harm.

Hiccup spends his time exploring the lands beyond Berk with his dragon pal, Toothless, and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera).

All the set-up work between Hiccup and Toothless has been done in the first film, but that was actually a major factor in what made it great, watching their friendship grow.

So though that means we can now get rattled into the story, it's slightly at the expense of spending time with these beloved characters.

It's not without a strong and affectionate centre though, and in those early scenes between them it's able to hit the heights achieved previously, in brief bursts at least.

That emotional connection also exists between Hiccup and his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), the village chief who wants his son to take over even though Hiccup doesn't think he's cut out for it.

The main plot kicks off when Hiccup and Astrid discover a group of hunters who are capturing dragons and bringing them to the mysterious Drago, an old enemy of Stoick.

In what should have been one of the film's great surprises, but has been widely revealed in the trailers, Hiccup also discovers that his mother (Cate Blanchett, doing a tour of Scotland and the north of England with her accent) is still alive and sheltering dragons from Drago.

The stage is set for a stand-off between ideologies, between the warring and the diplomatic, but what flowed organically the first time round now seems just a touch mechanical.

Not that it's an effort to put these pieces into place, but it just doesn't flow with the same seamlessness, being more plot than character driven.

This does cause some issues when the bad guy's scheme shows itself to be a bit wobbly, with the motivations of the antagonists a little hard to pin down and the resolution a little easy.

But taking the bigger picture into account, thematically this is a movie with nothing short of world peace in its sights, and you've got to admire that.

And for the most part it ticks along very nicely indeed, with a few good laughs, yet not quite as many as would be hoped.

It's lost a good deal of its innocence and, in the more realistic way he's animated, Hiccup has lost a bit of what made him so endearing. But the voice cast still do sterling work, and Butler even gets to sing.

The times it approaches greatness are largely visual moments, as humans on the backs of dragons dance through the clouds like they themselves are flying.

It's stirring stuff and this is a jaw-droppingly beautiful film, but above all it's the boldness and audacity of these images that sets them apart and makes this a frequently breathtaking movie.

John Powell's score carries it on majestic wings and the bullseye moments are numerous enough to forgive the story weaknesses.

With its vast armies and massive dragon battles, there's always something worth looking at, even if it doesn't always engage on an emotional level.

But when it sticks to its bread and butter of being the Hiccup and Toothless show, it's impossible not to love.

See it if you liked: How to Train Your Dragon, Rise of the Guardians, Brave

Chef (15, 114 mins)

Director: Jon Favreau

4 stars

Jon Favreau takes a step away from fantasy blockbusters for this warm-hearted road movie, the first film he's directed since Cowboys and Aliens three years ago.

The amiable star pulls triple duty on Chef, also writing and starring as Carl Casper, a top chef who is obsessed with the review an influential food critic (Oliver Platt) is going to give him.

When it all goes predictably wrong at the end of a slightly too lengthy set-up, Carl quits the restaurant and travels to Florida to buy a food truck, planning to drive it back to California serving food along the way.

This also offers him a chance to reconnect with his 10-year-old son from his former marriage, something that happens naturally and believably.

Chef is probably 15 minutes too long, and does drag a little in a second half that barely contains any conflict, coasting along on charm alone, with all the pieces fitting together a little too easily.

But thanks to its easygoing appeal and winning performances from Favreau, John Leguizamo as his assistant and Emjay Anthony as his son, the journey is a funny and engaging one that makes the best use of social media yet seen in movies.

The trump card though might be the quite astonishing food on display, and if you do go and see Chef, you'll regret it if you go in hungry.

See it if you liked: Big Night, No Reservations, Ratatouille

Cold In July (15, 110 mins)

Director: Jim Mickle

3 stars

Jim Mickle's neo-noir Cold In July feels like several different films that offer varying levels of quality but which never quite glue together in a way that fully satisfies.

It's set in Texas in 1989, and opens with mild-mannered Richard (Michael C. Hall) killing a burglar in self-defence.

The whole town thinks this is great, and so it looks like it's going to be about how Richard deals with the aftermath, shaken by the event but treated like a hero.

But then news reaches him that the dead man's father has been released from prison, and so Sam Shepard shows up to menace him for a bit, and it all becomes somewhat fanciful.

But that's only about a third of a plot that then develops in unexpected ways, with the entrance of Don Johnson as a private detective seeing it take a curious turn into buddy comedy for a while until it morphs into another film altogether for the last third as it takes an even darker path than the one it was originally on.

All this shapeshifting does make Cold In July a tricky one to pin down, giving the impression of a director never fully in control of the material, even if he provides a lot of fun along the way.

A brooding Shepard is tremendous and there's some great stuff between him and Johnson, while you can't help but enjoy the final push into all-out exploitation silliness.

See it if you liked: Killer Joe, A History of Violence, Blue Ruin