It’s a rare sequel — animated or otherwise — that expands the story of its predecessor without rehashing it, and an even rarer family-oriented film that manages to be fun and mature without being condescending to its audience. How to Train Your Dragon 2 does both.
Set five years after the first movie, a clunky prologue sequence reveals our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has grown from an awkward teen into a slightly less awkward young man being groomed to succed his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), as chief of the village of Berk. (In all fairness, it’s one of only a couple of clunky scenes in an otherwise smooth story.)
Berk has changed quite a bit since the last movie; its people now live in peaceful and prosperous co-existence with dragons (despite the occasional fire hazard) instead of fearing and hunting them, and Hiccup would rather be out exploring the world, mapping new territories and finding new species with his own dragon, Toothless.
A chance encounter with a gang of dragon hunters changes everything, as Hiccup learns that the rest of the world isn’t as harmonious with flying reptiles; in fact, a mysterious chieftain named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) is capturing as many as he can find and using an alpha male known as a Bewilderbeast to subjugate them. Cue a sweeping series of revelations, reversals of fortune, and startling revelations that open the series to an epic breadth and scope.
The original cast continues to stand out, especially Baruchel and Butler, who flesh out their characters considerably, as do the aforementioned Hounsou, Kit Harington as the dragon trapper Eret, and Cate Blanchett as a dragon rider whose true identity will not be revealed here. The dragons themselves are equally developed characters, wonderfully animated and given a range of movement and expression that not only brings them to life, but also gives them distinct personalities.
Writer-director Dean DeBlois seems to have sensed that the audience has aged and matured since 2010, and have responded by providing a story that is more nuanced and a bit darker than the first installment. Now a young man, Hiccup has to deal with some adult situations, up to and including the death of someone close to him, and the movie approaches these with some genuine emotion. DeBlois has touted this movie as the Empire Strikes Back of the franchise; indeed, there’s a shadow of mortality hanging over HTTYD2, and although it doesn’t quite reach a Lion King or Bambi proportions, it might be disarming for the unprepared. That’s not to say it’s drenched in doom and gloom — far from it, with plenty of humor to round out the tone. The story is a bit busy at times and there’s still some of the standard animated family feature formula to be had, but the final product rises above mere eye candy.