A sleeper hit upon release, 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon
" opened well enough but then hung on for months after, reclaiming its spot as the number-one movie at the box office in its fifth weekend. With the film earning close to $500-million internationally, a sequel was naturally greenlit. By taking its time in the four years since the first movie, Dreamworks has mounted a superior second installment, one that gives heretofore untapped personality to its characters and an extra shot of heart to the touching, age-old tale of a Viking and his dragon. For these reasonsand for literally soaring set-pieces that one-up similar scenes in its predecessor where Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) takes flight on the back of winged creature Toothless"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a notch above. What it is not is a truly great animated feature, missing out on a memorable, well-used villain while going a little slack in the pacing department toward the third act.
On "a wet heap of rock" called Berk, dragonsonce fearedhave been accepted into the community. The harmony between man, beast and outside tribes is threatened, however, when plucky rider Hiccup and beloved pet Toothless come upon a nearby icy fortress of dragon trappers doing the bidding of shadowy conqueror Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Not about to stand for this assault on their fire-breathing allies, Hiccup's Viking chief father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is quick to prepare his men for battle. The more idealistic Hiccup has different ideas, hoping that he might be able to come to a peaceful resolution and change Drago's mind in the process. Enter Valka (Cate Blanchett), a vigilante dragon sympathizer adamant in her belief that most people are not capable of change. She has sought out the unsuspecting Hiccup for a specific reason that has nothing to do with the trappersone that could very well inform his past and inspire his destiny.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is set five years after the first movie
's events, sending Hiccup and now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) from adolescence into young adulthood. An early scene depicting a new arena sport called dragon racing looks suspiciously like quidditch (save for the addition of sheep tossing), but the sequence that follows right after it is where things really get going. As "Where No One Goes" by Jónsi rises on the soundtrack while Hiccup zooms across the water's edge and above the clouds atop the good-natured Toothless, the film hits an invigorating sweet spot. It is a thrilling moment, even if this particular high doesn't necessarily last over the proceeding ninety minutes.
The plot proper is more functional than consistently involving, but it does signal a means to an end in exploring a number of pertinent topics. Realizing that he is not like his father and having never met his mother, Hiccup isn't sure he has quite found his true identity. His best-friend bond with Night Fury dragon Toothless holds a pure charm and attention to detail that the first film did not, while Astrid, Stoick and new character Valka present diverse viewpoints on how to go about solving strife and the capabilities (or incapableness) for "bad people" to change their wrongheaded ways. All of the characters, in fact, are more clearly definedthe hilarious-even-in-animated-form Kristen Wiig (2013's "Despicable Me 2
") is given much more to do this time as boy-crazy tomboy Ruffnutand relationships are more attentively nuanced. Jay Baruchel (2013's "This Is the End
"), miscast in the previous pic, comes into his own as hero Hiccup, the nebbish inflections in his voice amusingly self-referenced in a cute scene where Astrid playfully teases him. And, as Valka, Cate Blanchett (2013's "Blue Jasmine
") brings shades of tender regret and wistful cynicism to a woman who has begun to second-guess her decision to run away from her life and the people she loved all those years ago.
Based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a pleasing entertainment, its computer animation beautiful in its rustic texture and exotic scenery. The film will not let down fans of the series, but, as much as returning writer-director Dean DeBlois has upped the emotional content, he hasn't made a film that lingers in the viewer's mind after the fact. There is nothing terribly special about DeBlois' familiar screenplay, and the villain, looking like a dreadlocked Andre the Giant, is an afterthought who doesn't show up until late in the second half. What one takes away are the things that stand out while they are happeningthe rush of freedom between Hiccup and Toothless when they are high in the air with the wind at their feet, for instance, and the care with which Hiccup's journey (rather than the specifics of the plot) is afforded. In just two movies, he has grown exponentially as a young man continuing to struggle, pick himself up and find his way.