With the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera. Written and directed by Dean DeBlois. Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor. 102 minutes.
DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 CGI animated movie “How to Train Your Dragon” was a big hit, despite cartoon Vikings with Scottish accents and an all-too-predictable plot. This time around, in the cryptically-titled HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, the Vikings still don’t sound remotely Scandinavian but the story (based on subsequent entries in the series by Cressida Cowell) has grown complex, as have the characters. As a result, with Pixar giving 2014 a pass with no new releases, the field has been cleared for this sequel. DreamWorks has taken full advantage of the opportunity with arguably their best film since the original “Shrek.”
The village of Berk has been transformed since young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) demonstrated that humans and dragons can live peacefully together. Now the Vikings engage in dragon races, craftsmen tend to the needs of both the dragons and the riders, and Stoick (Gerard Butler) is looking forward to the day when Hiccup can succeed him as chief. Hiccup has other ideas, though, when he and Astrid (America Ferrara) discover that a mysterious figure named Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is amassing a dragon army of conquest.
What makes the film interesting is that there are several groups working at cross-purposes. The equally mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) seems to be trying to protect the dragons, but is hiding a secret that will change Hiccup’s life. Meanwhile, when his father is finally convinced of the threat, his solution is to prepare for war, while Hiccup believes that there must be a peaceful way to avoid fighting. To reveal more would be to give away too much of the story, but suffice to say, this is a much more profound coming-of-age story for Hiccup than the first film.
Besides deepening the characters and providing a far more engaging story. “How To Train Your Dragon 2” also significantly ups the ante on its visual design. The humans still look cartoonish, which is necessary to avoid “The Uncanny Valley Effect” but the level of detail on the dragons marks a quantum leap, in terms of design as well as animated aerodynamics. This may very well turn out to be the best animated film of the year.
Parents of very young film fans should be warned not only about the scary stuff–it’s a movie about dragons after all–but there are some plot twists that are disturbing. Hiccup and his beloved dragon Toothless turn out okay in the end (else no 2016 sequel), but the same cannot be said for everyone else. Most children should be able to handle it, but you know your kids best, and if they’re very sensitive or easily frightened you may want to see the film first or else be prepared for some upsetting nightmares ahead.
As a reviewer who greeted the first film with lukewarm praise as merely acceptable children’s entertainment, let it be noted that the reaction is much different this time. “How To Train Your Dragon 2” joins that short list of sequels that surpass their originals.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.