Sequels can be tricky business. For every "Empire Strikes Back" there are a dozen "Robocop 2," "Caddyshack II" (there was one?), or "The Matrix Reloaded." The first "How to Train Your Dragon" film was clever, heartfelt, wonderfully animated, and original. Can lightning strike twice?
In "How to Train Your Dragon 2," a few years have passed since our hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) successfully showed his fellow Vikings that not all dragons are bad. In fact, most are just misunderstood. Now the cliffside island village of Berk is home to dragons and Vikings, living in harmony. Hiccup (still a bit small for a Viking) resists the usual routines and rituals of the village, choosing instead to explore the outside world with his dragon pal, Toothless (who is anything but). In his travels, Hiccup happens upon an area that has been virtually destroyed by an ice dragon. But the "victims" of this attack were themselves dragon hunters, seeking to ensnare unwilling new dragon recruits for the evil Drago Bludvist's dragon army.
Against his father's wishes, Hiccup sets off with his friends in search of Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou), convinced that he can convince the ruthless dictator of the error of his ways. Along the way, he and Toothless are captured by a mysterious dragon rider who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be none other than Hiccup's long lost mother. Assumed to be dead after being carried away from Berk by a dragon while Hiccup was still just a wee baby, Hiccup's mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) has actually been building a sanctuary for dragons, rescuing them from dragon hunters and other hopeless plights. At the center of the sanctuary is a powerful Alpha Dragon, a "Bewilderbeast" who maintains order in the dragon sancturary and wreaks a frozen wrath upon those who would capture or harm his charges.
When Drago learns of the dragon riders of Berk, he vows to destroy Valka's dragon habitat, conquer Berk and from there, the world. Drago has positioned himself as the only human being who can keep the dragon menace at bay. So the very existence of dragon riders living in harmony with dragons threatens his master plan of world domination.
If the first "Dragon" film was a coming of age story, with Hiccup discovering what he wants to be when he grows up, the second continues where that left off: finding out why. In the first film, Hiccup finds his place in the world as a protector of dragons and a peacemaker between the flying lizards and humankind. In the second film, Hiccup finds out that's actually the family business, at least on his mother's side.
Hiccup's father wants him to give up childish ways, settle down and step into his role as the future chief and protector of the humans of Berk. Hiccup's mother wants him to stay with her as a protector of dragons and emissary of peace. Can Hiccup make one parent proud without disappointing the other? Will he even get the chance?
As with the first film, the animation here is outstanding. Little details such as shimmering dragon scales and rustling Viking facial hair (of which there is a great deal), stand out in exquisite detail. Facial expressions are nicely captured, both in humans and in dragon faces, conveying a nice range of emotions. The motion of all creatures is fluid and smooth, except where it shouldn't be, as with injuries or dragons who have been snagged in nets.
As a 3D visual experience, the film is top notch with ample depth of field that draws you into the story. The soundtrack matches the action well: sweeping and majestic during the dragon-riding; dark and foreboding when revealing Drago and his sinister plans; somber and serious when bad things happen to good characters.
I'm happy to report that the action, and the story, hold up nicely as well. We really care about our human and dragon friends. Director Dean DeBlois is back and he's not afraid to go dark: even central characters are not immune to paying the ultimate sacrifice to protect those that they love. But, as with the first film, the movie ends in triumph and optimism, leaving room for more. A good thing, too because "How to Train Your Dragon 3" is apparently already in the works.