“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is all fans of the original were hoping and has a good shot at being not just the best animated film of the year but one of the best in any category and for any age. The visuals are stunning, with thrillingly vertiginous 3D swoops and soars as the human characters fly on their dragons. And sorry about this #tfios fans, but this film has the tenderest love scene in theaters right now, and an exquisitely beautiful song called “The Dancing and the Dreaming,” with lyrics by Shane MacGowan and music by Jon Thor Birgisson and John Powell.
It gets off to a joyous, roller coaster-y start, with our old friends Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his best friend/sidekick, Toothless the dragon, who may be the last of his breed. Five years have passed since Hiccup taught the proud Vikings of his cold and stony town of Berk that dragons are to be cherished, not hunted. Hiccup’s burly father Stoick (Gerard Butler) is now very proud of his son, but does not always listen to him. Stoick wants Hiccup to follow him as leader of the community. But Hiccup is something of a loner, and would rather explore with Toothless and work on his maps than speak to the crowd or make decisions about what they should do. Hiccup’s girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrara) is sympathetic. And she is pursuing her own dream, as we see in a rolicking, thrilling, and hilarious dragon race as the movie opens, part Quidditch, part mayhem. The Berkians may have a new appreciation and respect for dragons, but sheep, not so much.
Things get complicated quickly as two new characters appear. Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is a fierce and cruel villain, “a madman without conscience or mercy,” who is assembling a dragon army to attack Berk. And Hiccup’s travels lead to the discovery of Valka (Cate Blanchett) who is something of a dragon whisperer, a Jane Goodall of flying reptiles, who lives in a dragon sanctuary. Both have a history with Berk and with Stoick.
Advances in technology have made it possible to have more characters and more interactivity. Hundreds of figures appear on screen at a time including a fabulously imaginative flock of dragon babies and an ominous invading army. There are new striking effects like light on ice that give the images a gorgeous luminosity. One of the best developments comes from the animators’ having some fun with scale. To say more would be to spoil the surprise.
The story is endearingly true-hearted despite a few bumps. Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig) is unnecessarily mean to the two guys who have crushes on her (and to pretty much everyone else), and it is disappointing to see her take one look at Eret’s muscular arms and collapse into a exaggerated goo-goo-eyed crush. It was so painfully retro I kept expecting some sort of twist. The theory behind the source of the greatest threat is a bit wobbly, making the resolution less satisfying than it should be.
But these are minor compared to the sumptuousness of the story and power of the connection between the appealing Hiccup and Toothless and between Hiccup and the audience. What gives this story its power is not how beautiful it is, but how real it feels.
Parents should know that this film has action-style violence with battles, human and animal characters in peril, a very sad parental death, and brief potty humor. A strength of the film is the portrayal of strong, brave, and capable female and disabled characters and a very brief, subtle suggestion that one of them is gay.
Family discussion: What did Hiccup discover about himself? How is Hiccup like his father and his mother? What does Drago want?
If you like this, try: the first movie and the television series “Dragons: Riders of Berk”