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Movie Review: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' (2014)

Imaginative, humorous, and thrilling, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is everything the first film was – and a little bit more. Taking a page from the Pixar handbook, the second chapter instills maturer themes of identity, connection, and leadership into the story while raising the emotional ante with sobering elements of love and loss. The action is still plentiful, with large-scale battles and ever-larger colossi, but the creativity shines with the exploration of lands beyond the isle of Berk. Magnificently verdant preserves, icy fortresses, and underwater grottos astound, and a handful of originative dragon types are introduced to the existing array. Despite the occasional missed opportunity to one-up a beastly behemoth or outdo the previous epic encounter, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” excels in crafting adventure that is both rousing and aesthetic.

Five years have passed since the events of “How to Train Your Dragon” and the island of Berk has been refashioned to accommodate the newfound harmony between man and dragon. While chief Stoick (Gerard Butler) and the majority of the Viking clan delight in exhilarating dragon races, his son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) looks to the skies and strives to investigate distant lands that may contain even more winged friends. During one of his cartography expeditions with his faithful Night Fury dragon, Toothless, the curious young Viking is attacked by a band of mercenary dragon trappers, led by Eret (Kit Harrington).

Upon hearing of the hunters’ commander, Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), a barbaric ruler intent on controlling a corps of dragons, Hiccup determines to confront the despot and verbally convince him to abandon his sinister plans. But Stoick knows mere words won’t change Drago’s thirst for power. With the aid of brave dragon riders Astrid (America Ferrera), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), and more, he heads out to face the tyrant and battle for the very fate of man – and dragonkind – alike.

With the lead role now 20 years old, there’s a hint of a budding teen romance, paired with a female counterpart for Stoick, in the form of Cate Blanchett’s Valka. And with these inclusions come heightened emotional subjects, severer tragedies, and, at times, what seems like an overbearing onslaught of psychological wallops. Although not detrimental to the entertainment value, it’s as if moving, sophisticated material is insisted upon in order to meet a quota – or to challenge the customarily sentimental and poignant sequences found in Pixar pictures. With “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” DreamWorks Animation indeed succeeds at replicating the influence and enjoyment of Pixar’s hugely significant works.

Evildoers from the past wage a war of a hypnotized dragon army and equally subjugated Vikings against the forward-thinking collaboration of man and beast, singling out a fresh primary antagonist in the form of a human. It’s fitting that once dragons are treated with equality, a seemingly backwards faction of mankind is the component that quickly strives to conquer free will and unity. “Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with,” warns Stoick, rightly predicting the nature of moral corruption and the seductive power of total leadership. Voicing unpopular opinions, coercing stubborn minds, and inheriting unwanted directorship similarly clash with Hiccup’s desire for simple adventure.

Echoing the negative qualities of unchecked human captaincy is a novel hierarchy of dragon species, which borrows from canine behavior even more than in the first film. The corresponding visuals are riveting, acquainting refulgent arctic landscapes and lush tropical forests for battlegrounds and sanctuaries, respectively, while epic skirmishes highlight a spectacular finale (the Alpha dragon versus a surprising challenger is particularly rambunctious). It’s an inspiringly well-balanced project, full of action, loveable characters, and familiar humor, resulting in a sequel that is right alongside the original in superlative quality.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)