A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.
Soaring every bit as loftily as its predecessor, DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2” blazes a standard-bearer’s trail for what animated adventure films and big-budget franchise sequels can and should be.
While its stunning visuals send it flying high, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” also plumbs greater depths than most family-friendly films, going beyond the usual messages about protecting the environment and valuing parental ties and exploring what it means to be a leader, a father, a man and a friend. Although the term “epic” is overused these days, writer-director Dean DeBlois seems determined to make his sequel just that, with Jonsi (of Sigur Ros famed) and John Powell’s sweeping score and the resonant ballad “For the Dancing and the Dreaming” mightily aiding his mission.
Set five years after 2010’s fantastic “How to Train Your Dragon,” the follow-up flies back to the Viking village of Berk, where the denizens have happily transitioned from battling dragons to living, flying and playing with the winged reptiles. Since original dragon rider Hiccup (voiced with even more warbly, wonderfully expressive humor by Jay Baruchel) has become not only the town hero but also an adorkably handsome 20-year-old, his chieftain father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is eager for his son to take his rightful place as leader of Berk.
Although he managed to get an entire village to see dragons his way, Hiccup is still a bit of a maverick, less interested in running his clan than exploring the vast wilds around Berk on the back of his Night Fury pal Toothless, whom the filmmakers have managed to animate with even more hilarity, warmth and ferocity.
The heir to the chief’s title is content to let his fiercely capable girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and his still-motley crew of peers – Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristen Wiig and T.J. Miller) – excel at the newly favored sport of dragon racing while he develops a glider suit that allows him to zip over clouds and oceans alongside Toothless. The film’s opening moments juxtaposing these two flying sequences are not only worth the price of a movie ticket, they’re worth springing for the full 3-D or IMAX experience.
Berk’s long-awaited peace is threatened when Hiccup meets a band of dragon trappers led by the mercenary Eret (“Game of Thrones’” Kit Harington), who is capturing the winged creatures for Drago Bludvist (a cannily cast Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless warrior who aims to form a dragon army.
Hiccup also crosses paths with a mysterious dragon rider named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who protects the creatures and has lived among them for 20 years in a hidden paradise that rivals some of animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s most vivid fantasy landscapes. While Hiccup and his cohorts clashed with a monstrous dragon queen in their previous adventure, it’s nothing compared to his encounters with the gigantic Bewilderbeasts.
As with the first film, DeBlois (who helmed and wrote the 2010 movie along with Chris Sanders) guides “How to Train Your Dragon 2” into fairly familiar coming-of-age, boy-and-his-dog (er, dragon) storytelling territory. Like Hiccup, though, the filmmaker is willing to take big risks and deal with the results, which are by turns harrowing, heartbreaking, thrilling and uplifting. Everything a fantasy adventure should be, in other words.