How to Train Your Dragon 2
Three stars (out of four)
PG (adventure action, mild rude humor)
With its cute and clever character design, irresistible premise and soaring scenes of flight, “How to Train Your Dragon” was the first DreamWorks film to truly rival the animated wonders of Pixar. The sweet-natured Viking adventure debuted in 2010 and quickly became a classic, thanks in no small part to Toothless, the fierce but loyal little dragon who supplied the movie with its generous heart.
However many times I see it, I still get teary-eyed in that moment when Hiccup reaches out to touch his new friend, the Night Fury — who, as it turns out, is not so furious — and his affections are finally accepted. It’s a simple moment of grace that perfectly captures the joy of man’s bond with nature’s beasts and it’s right up there with anything that “Up” or “Toy Story 3” has to offer.
A sequel was inevitable. Arriving four years later, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” seems to have lost some of the franchise steam, under-performing at last weekend’s box office. It’s a shame because this second installment builds on the charms of the first film with gorgeous animation and fantastical adventure designed to appeal to everyone’s dragon-loving inner child. And whether you’re a fan of “The Hobbit,” Harry Potter or “Game of Thrones,” who doesn’t love dragons?
Returning writer-director Dean DeBlois brings us back to the once dragon-fearing cliff-top burg of Berk, which has embraced its winged former foes and transformed itself into a haven for the fire-breathing beasts. Vikings and dragons live side by side and the mythical creatures enjoy luxurious stables, all-you-can-eat fish and a culture that revolves around dragon racing. It’s kind of like Quidditch with airborne sheep.
The sport is depicted in an opening sequence that is a heck of a lot of fun, reintroducing the audience to the colorful cast of supporting characters, including Hiccup’s aggressive girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), wise-cracking, one-armed, one-legged blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and squabbling twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T.J. Miller).
But it is in the next sequence that DeBlois pulls out all the stops, depicting Hiccup and inseparable pal Toothless gliding high above the clouds, testing the limits of some nifty new gadgetry designed by the tinkering chief’s son. The animation is jaw-dropping and exhilarating, showing off the “Dragon” creative team’s exquisite grasp of light and water effects.
Once a misfit, an older, less gawky Hiccup (the endearingly nerdy Jay Baruchel) is now hailed as “the pride of Berk.” He’s on better terms with his father, hairy uber-Viking Stoick (a gruff and goofy Gerard Butler), but dad could still stand to brush up on his listening skills. Hiccup is ambivalent about succeeding his father as chief, but Stoick’s method of dealing with this is to mostly ignore his kid’s reservations.
Hiccup escapes the mounting pressure by indulging his passion for exploration, flying farther and farther beyond his island home and mapping out new realms. In the process, he and Toothless make an unsettling discovery — not everyone shares Berk’s dragon-loving philosophy.
While much of the beauty of “How to Train Your Dragon” could be found in its simplicity, DeBlois takes a more ambitious approach to the sequel. He’s expanded the franchise universe, venturing beyond the familiar world of Berk to introduce new territories, new dragons, new humans — including a cocky dragon trapper voiced by “Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington — and a scarred, dreadlocked villain (Djimon Hounsou) who looks menacing, but doesn’t have much of a personality.
The colorful menagerie of new dragons results in welcome and wondrous sights. They include ice dwellers, water dwellers, rambunctious babies and a couple of massive, tusked Kaiju that could have lumbered straight out of “Godzilla.” There’s also an intriguing addition to the cast in the form of a figure from Hiccup’s past, a sort of Jane Goodall of dragons richly voiced by Cate Blanchett.
At times, it feels like there’s too much going on in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Some of the characters get lost in an over-abundant assortment of subplots, like Astrid, for instance, who comes along for the ride but doesn’t do much. The film loses something when its focus wanders from the fast friendship shared by Hiccup and Toothless and the finale goes to a dark place — perhaps darker than necessary — which some young moviegoers may have trouble processing.
DeBlois has once again enlisted veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “True Grit”) as a consultant and his expert visual influence is seen and felt throughout the film. From Toothless’ hilariously feline expressions to the play of surf, sun and cloud as great beasts skim the skyline, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” takes the eye to stunning visual heights.
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