“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is an eye-filling and exciting follow-up to the animated 3D adventure “How to Train Your Dragon.” It’s also far darker, and somewhat more violent. We’re not taking “Game of Thrones” here, but this often thought-provoking fantasy is somewhat less family-friendly than its predecessor. But that being said, one thing “HTTYD2” isn’t just a crass rehash. This is a sequel that does what sequels do far too seldom: it takes its characters further, develops them in new and interesting ways and isn’t afraid to take an entirely different tone. Writer/director Dean DeBlois, who co-directed and co-directed the first installment, has crafted a sequel that joins a small number of movie sequels that are at least arguably better than their predecessors.
As the sequel opens, five years have passed since the young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriended an injured dragon and forever changed the way the residents of Berk interact with the fire-breathers. Now, Vikings and dragons live side-by-side in peace and harmony. Hiccup’s relationship with his father Stoick (Gerard Butler), the village chieftain, has certainly improved, but Hiccup reacts with anxiety to the news that his father wants him to take over as chieftain. With grown-up responsibilities looming, Hiccup and his faithful dragon Toothless take to the skies on an exploration expedition. It’s more than he bargained for, though, when Hiccup discovers that a mysterious dragon rider (spoiler alert, although it’s in the trailers) is really his long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and that the idyllic environment in Berk is threatened by the power-hungry Drago (Djimon Hounsou) with help from dragon trapper Eret, son of Eret (“Game of Thrones” actor Kit Harington).
Fantasy sequels generally need to introduce new critters, and “HTTYD2” does so in spades, with the previously unseen “alpha dragons,” gigantic fathers of all dragons that breathe ice instead of fire, and can telepathically dominate other dragons. These creatures, huge on the big screen, are almost Lovecraftian and might in and of themselves frighten younger children. And (spoiler alert) parents might want to prepare younger viewers that even the faithful Toothless falls under the domination of the evil alpha for a time, with disastrous results.
Where the first movie was largely about people learning to overcome prejudice, the sequel is about acceptance of the responsibilities of leadership, and appreciating the limits of the first movie’s theme. Hiccup has seen the people of his village change, and therefore optimistically believes that he can reason with Drago. “How to Train Your Dragon” was an essentially villain-free movie. The evil that had to be combated was prejudice - the people were not intrinsically bad. Drago is a bad guy through and through - cruel, ambitious, implacable. The difference this makes isn’t minor. This isn’t just a boy-and-his-dragon story anymore. “HTTYD2” is a war movie. We’ve gone from “The Black Stallion” or “My Friend Flicka” to “The Longest Day.”
This is a physically gorgeous movie, easily on a par with its stunning predecessor. Valka’s hidden dragon sanctuary is a magnificently realized environment rivalling “Avatar.” As with the first installment, the 3D is superb and enhances the experience of the movie. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that “HTTYD2” boasts some of the technically finest 3D ever seen. That of course puts the critic in the unenviable position of having to recommend that prospective audiences prepare to shell out the higher ticket prices, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen and in 3D. The reward is that for a couple of hours audiences will feel like they’re soaring with dragons, and that’s a rare treat.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” open Friday, June 13th, at theaters across the Capital District, including the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in downtown Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, the Jericho Drive-In on Route 9 West in Glenmont and the Malta Drive-In on Route 9 in Malta.