How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the rare sequel that's an improvement on the original, which is a very big compliment because the first was a wonderful movie in its own right. But everything that was great about the first one is expanded upon in this one- it feels bigger in scope, ambition, themes and leaves a stronger emotional impact, along with breathtaking visual and flight sequences that are (like in the first movie) worth the price of admission alone, especially in a theater.
We pick up on the island of Berk five years after the events of the first How to Train Your Dragon, and Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel) is now a twenty year old young man who his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants to anoint as chief of the island. The population all has dragons of their own to contend with, and the villagers spend their time participating in complicated tournaments involving tossing and catching sheep through hoops (don't ask) while riding on the various dragon's backs. Life is now idyllic on the isand and Hiccup is admired for being a kind of dragonmaster after he discovered how to tame them, but he's rebellious and would rather spend his time exploring far off lands with his loyal buddy Toothless, the adorable Night Fury, who goes through his own journey of personal discovery in this movie.
Conflict comes from a dangerous dragon hunter called Drogo (Djimon Hounsou) who has an ominous past with Stoick, and wants to hunt down and capture all the dragons he can find, rather than tame them and learn to cohabit peacefully, as the citizens of Berk have done. The earnest Hiccup thinks he can talk him into their way of life, while Stoick warns him it's a chief's duty to protect his own. The already fairly heavy plot is complicated even more when Hiccup accidentally finds his long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) on one of his journeys and discovers how he inherited his own peace loving and caretaking nature. The movie's moral weight comes from its absolute devotion to the caring of these animals by the humans, and writer-director Dean DeBlois seems to really believe it's our duty to protect and preserve any kind of intelligent animal life. Okay, so these are mythological creatures, but there's an obvious metaphor in here for the protection of endangered species, and the sincere affection for the bond that can develop between human and pet is on full display, as it was in the first film. Valka lives in a shrine built by the ancient alpha dragon, which is home to hundreds of colorful, astonishing beasts of all kinds, and is one of the most visually pleasing environments you'll see on screen all year.
Speaking of the visuals, the great Roger Deakins was once again consultant on the cinematography for this film, and to say it's a feast for the eyes is beyond understatement. It's filled with lush, gorgeous backgrounds and eye-popping colors, and there's genuine exhilaration in the flying sequences, which are accompanied by John Powell's fantastically memorable score once again. These passages alone can make you feel as if you're soaring through the air yourself. Hiccup's gang of dragon-riding pals all return to provide comic relief (there's a subplot involving Ruffnut's attraction to the new guy in the group, Eret, voiced by Game of Thrones's Kit Harington), but it's really Hiccup's journey, as he must learn to accept his adult responsibilities and realize the ever present danger of befriending dangerous animals, all while also attempting to put his broken family back together. There's a real focus on the relationship between he and both of his parents in this movie that isn't often explored in other animated films, and the more serious-minded themes in this film even lead to a Bambi-esque moment in the climax that you might want to prepare the kids for in advance (bring tissues).
There may be some nitpicks to the story along the way- for example, I wasn't entirely convinced by the explanation for Valka's twenty year absence from her child's life, or Hiccup's immediate acceptance of that, although I suppose it was necessary to move the plot along. But when it's clear that this movie actually wants to explore those real human emotions it can bring questions like that up, which I guess is really another way of acknowledging the depth of maturity this film strives for. It actually has something it wants to say, along with being a rollicking entertainment for family audiences. To that end, it succeeds heartily at both, and I can't wait for the conclusion of the trilogy.
* * * 1/2