'How to Train Your Dragon 2' ***
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 advancing 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 directions 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 fires caused by dragon breath.
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, a sign of all 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 Ferrara), who is now his girlfriend, as well as a fellow explorer.
One day these two adventurers make an ominous discovery: A trapper's fort. Eret, son of Eret, 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 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 believedragons can live with humans – humans can be too cruel.
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. 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, more than lives up to that promise.