When How to Train Your Dragon went on to be a smash and rival Pixar's Toy Story 3 at the Oscars, it must have shocked Dreamworks Animation as much as it did everyone else. The studio had been around probably a lot longer than many thought, and for every creative and box office success like Shrek or Kung Fu Panda, there were numerous other retreads and copycats. Anybody remember MegaMind? Didn't think so. But sequels have proven especially difficult, with few ever coming close to matching the original. Does the string of bad luck continue with How to Train Your Dragon 2?
The answer is a resounding "No" as How to Train Your Dragon 2 is bigger and soars higher than the first and will undoubtedly be one of the year's best animated features. Dean DeBlois takes the directing reins solo this time, and rather than coasting along with what worked before he's expanded and evolved the 'Dragon' universe into someplace unpredictable and dangerous.
Five years have passed and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is on a different sort of journey, one where he is literally charting a new world astride his dragon pal, Toothless. The rough-housing Viking village of Berk has changed more than Hiccup's slick new armor, with the townspeople living in peace with the dragons they once hated. Astrid (America Ferrera) is now firmly his woman, the people respect him (mostly), and now his father Stoic wants him to take over the role of Chief. Is he ready to handle that kind of responsibility? Does he even want to be Chief? Hiccup must again decide whether to be his own viking or follow in his father's footsteps.
The emotional throughline may be familiar, but honestly it's probably going to be a theme throughout the entire franchise, and it resonates due to a screenplay that throws many unexpected twists into the mix. On one of Hiccup's outings he encounters a group of dragon trappers led by the brash Eret (Kit Harington), who is ensnaring the creatures for Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a man building up an army. But while Drago's plans are for evil, Hiccup also encounters the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett), a hermit hidden away in an icy cave where she has created a dragon sanctuary of sorts. This isn't about changing the hearts and minds of the Berk people anymore, Hiccup must try and prevent full-scale war while also finding out the secrets to his past.
In some ways the film follows the typical path set by most follow-ups in that there are deeper questions, more characters, and bigger action in the 'Empire Strikes Back' mold. And that also means some of the humor slips into the background, or at least it seems to be relegated to Hiccup's pals (voiced by TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and more) who seem to be around only to appease younger viewers. That's not to say there aren't plenty of laughs, but this is definitely the dark middle chapter of a larger story, one where Hiccup again endures terrible and shocking loss that may be tough for younger audiences. We don't get to see nearly enough of Hiccup and Astrid as a couple, which would have made for a nice parallel with another romantic relationship rekindled in the film. More interesting and explored in greater detail is the bond between Hiccup and Toothless which is stronger than ever but still somewhat tenuous and easily manipulated. Drago, a villain of uncertain ethnic origin, is impressive only in his physical and mental dominion over pretty much everybody, but giving him a stronger motivation would have made an already-great film even better.
And of course the film is a visual stunner with aerial sequences that will take your breath away, and many of the dogfights (dragonfights?) have that Star Wars sizzle; you'd think they were piloting X-wing fighters. Even during the slower moments it's worth taking time to just soak up the surroundings and take in the lush colors and unique creature design. Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men) had a hand in crafting the film's look and the result stands apart from anything we've seen from Dreamworks before. With heart and action to spare, How to Train Your Dragon 2 reaches incredible heights.