One great advantage that animated sequels have over live-action ones is simply the benefit of time. Studios will rush to put out follow-ups to their biggest action blockbusters, but the simple nature of computer-generated animation is that projects take years and years to make. Had 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon been made with cameras, film, and practical sets, we probably would have already seen at least one sequel by now. Instead, the medium allowed writer/director Dean DeBlois and the folks at Dreamworks Animation precious time to create a worthy sequel… and that’s exactly what they’ve done in How To Train Your Dragon 2.
Set a full five years after the events of the first film, the movie begins as the Viking town of Berk has managed to completely change its national pastime -- its residents no longer hunting dragons, but instead riding on their backs for sport. It’s a peace that not many have ever seen, and it has provided a terrific environment for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) to mature in, flying with his dragon, Toothless, to places unknown in hopes of discovering and learning more about the fantastical world in which they live.
Growing up also means a growth in responsibilities, however, and while it’s not something that Hiccup wants, his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), has told him that he will be the next chief. As much as this is to take in, though, the news couldn’t have come at a worse time: Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a blood-thirsty, insane dragon hunter, has mysteriously reappeared with the intent of creating a dragon army to control the world; and an incredibly important person has returned to Hiccup’s life after decades of being presumed dead.
In addition to the time jump making it so that young fans of the first movie have aged almost exactly parallel to Hiccup, it also makes How To Train Your Dragon 2 shift and adapt to tell a different kind of story about growing up – and it accomplishes this in splendid fashion. The journey of self-discovery remains similar, though the sequel raises the stakes for its lead character by both continuing his independent growth while also giving him a better, truer understanding of where he actually comes from and how it has had a deep effect on him. While this is mixed in between fun action scenes and comically overdone “love at first sight” sequences (which are clearly done for the youngest members of the audience), it doesn’t take away from the film’s real emotional honesty, which comes through in an impressively powerful way for a family movie.
As visually impressive as the first film was for its time, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a stunning example of just how much technology and computer-generated animation has progressed in a short four years. Not only is the setting regularly breathtaking, filling the Viking world with stunning, diverse landscapes of both green and ice, but the character design is something to behold, as well. Both the humans and dragons alike remain delightfully cartoonish, while also having been smartly physically developed and aged, allowing their evolved personalities shine through their outward appearance. (The strongest example, of course, being Hiccup, who is clearly no longer a child and is suited up in an armor packed with all kinds of cool gadgets and tools that best allow him to communicate with Toothless and any other dragons he might happen upon).
In the same vein, the sequel’s action sequences stack up against all of the rival action blockbusters that are hitting theaters this summer, featuring cinematography that would be practically impossible in the world of live action and capturing every fine detail along the way.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 has some structural problems that do lead into some pacing issues (the most notable trouble area coming between the falling action and denouement), and with such an extremely talented voice cast it’s not hard to wish that the supporting characters had a bit more presence and were fleshed out more, but these are relatively minor glitches within what is overall a very worthy follow-up. With How To Train Your Dragon 3 already in the works and scheduled to arrive in just two years, I hope we soon a fitting conclusion to what is already two-thirds of a fantastic trilogy.