How to Train Your Dragon 2 review

Hiccup and his pet dragon Toothless lead their friends and us on another glorious animated adventure.

How to Train Your Dragon was one of the most refreshing and thrilling animated films of the past few years, with the 2010 Dreamworks Animation release boasting dazzling visuals, a story packed with startling dramatic depth and a poignant message about friendship, understanding and honor. With a nearly $500 million haul at the worldwide box office, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was inevitable. But could a second film — like the first, loosely based on the series of books by Cressida Cowell — be as fresh and surprising as the first?

The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean that How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a delight anyway. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois — co-director of the first entry — HTTYD 2 may lack some of the unexpected charm of the original, but boasts yet another emotionally rich storyline, an expansion of the world in which the stories take place and even more breathtakingly detailed, colorful and exhilarating animation.

It’s been five years since a now more mature Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriended his dragon Toothless instead of killing him, ushering in a new era in the mythical Viking land of Berk of cooperation and co-existence between humans and dragons. Now able to fly on the dragons, Hiccup and others head out on expeditions to explore the territories around Berk, even as Hiccup’s father and Berk chieftain Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) pressures his son to consider the possibility of taking over as chieftain — which Hiccup shies away from.

It’s on one of those expeditions that Hiccup and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara) come across a fort inexplicably frozen in a gigantic slab of ice. Its owner, dragon hunter Eret (Kit Harington), attempts to trap their dragons and bring them to Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a deranged ruler who is amassing a dragon army with which he intends to invade Berk. Hiccup and Astrid make it back home to warn Stoick, who begins assembling his own defenses, but Hiccup believes he can reason with Drago. Flying off again, he and Toothless are captured by a mysterious dragon rider (Cate Blanchett) who turns out to have a connection to both Hiccup and Berk.

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I won’t say what that connection is — although it’s been revealed elsewhere in case you need to know before seeing the film — but the dragon rider’s true identity is the main source of emotional weight in How to Train Your Dragon 2 and provides moments of poignancy for both Hiccup and Stoick, with the latter’s gruff exterior giving way to a wonderfully romantic inner man. It’s passages like these, where the characters show genuine growth beyond the roles established for them in the first film, that make HTTYD 2 a sequel that doesn’t simply rest on its laurels.

The same goes for both the enlargement of the world surrounding Berk — which is equal parts beautiful and dangerous — and the development of the dragon mythology, although the latter may get a bit too complicated as the movie goes on. We are, however, introduced to the awe-inspiring creatures known as Bewilderbeasts, colossal dragons that can breathe both fire and ice and which all other dragons must obey and serve. In fact, their somewhat frightening presence, along with a significant death scene late in the movie, gives How to Train Your Dragon 2 a darker tone than the original which may not be suitable for younger children.

The rest of the kids, however, won’t be bored. Even if you’re not caught up in the story’s emotional arc, the movie offers plenty of visceral, armrest-clutching action that takes you soaring into the air, whizzing through mountain passes and diving down toward the sea. Even during its quieter passages, the movie never stops being visually wondrous to just look at. The characters and settings are richly detailed and textured, as are their movements down to the smallest shift of the thinnest strand of hair (courtesy of a new and improved animation software called Apollo).

How to Train Your Dragon 2 does almost fall prey to that curious affliction that makes sequels strive to be bigger and busier than their predecessors, especially in its somewhat cluttered second half, and we wonder where DeBlois might go now that he’s stated his intention to make this a trilogy (Dreamworks, meanwhile, is talking about a third and fourth movie — typical). But even with its imperfections, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is marvelous entertainment and a worthy second chapter for Hiccup, Toothless and the gang — winged or otherwise.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out in theaters now.

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4 out of 5