There’s almost no dragon training in “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
A more accurate title would have been “How to Keep Your Dragons From Getting Enslaved by a Tyrannical Despot.” Or, to keep things simpler to fit the movie posters, “Game of Thrones for Kids.”
This DreamWorks Animation sequel is darker in tone and more layered that its popular predecessor, but that’s definitely a good thing. Like the original “Star Wars” trilogy and “Toy Story” series, the makers of this franchise are allowing the films to grow up alongside loyal young viewers. It’s a smart artistic choice, one that will benefit the audience now and the studio later.
After producing a money-maker, too many animation studios become conservative with sequels, which become hard to distinguish from the originals. This year’s “Rio 2” rolled out an overly cautious plot that was similar to the first film. Which “Ice Age” was the one where they migrated to a better climate? The first one? The third one? All of them?
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Instead of copying the template, the makers of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” choose to expand the universe geographically – a logical move considering the protagonists now move on the backs of dragons. Hiccup the Viking and his mount Toothless are mapping new lands when they run across the followers of Drago Bludvist, an exiled tribe member who traps dragons and rules through fear and torture.
Free range dragons are led by a giant ice dragon, a slow-moving icicle-breathing beast that is one of the visual highlights of the movie. (Among other positives, “Dragon 2” has a great sense of scale, especially in the flying scenes.) Meanwhile, Bludvist has a Sauron-like plan to bring everyone under his rule.
The sequel is directed with a clear vision by Dean DeBlois, who co-directed “Lilo & Stitch” and the first “How to Train Your Dragon.” (His longtime co-director, Chris Sanders, has moved on to shepherd “The Croods” franchise for DreamWorks.) You could imagine people wanting to re-watch his films 10 or 20 or 50 years from now, not something that’s likely to happen with “Turbo” or “The Smurfs 2.”
The intense story line is carried to some extreme ends, with more peril – including one key character’s death – than the typical summer family movie. Bludvist is shrouded in terrifying secrecy early on, and continues to be menacing after the unveiling. In other words, winter is coming, parents. Small or easily scared children should consider another screening of “Bears” instead.
While balancing the comedy and drama nicely, specific moments in “Dragon 2” feel derivative. The sport the main characters are playing in the opening scene is basically Quidditch from the Harry Potter book, with dragons instead of brooms. “Brave” is another easy comparison, especially when it comes to the accents and parent-child friction.
The movie improves the farther Hiccup and other riders stray from their home village of Berk. DeBlois, who also wrote the script, successfully juggles the multiple storylines, shifting allegiances and uncharted lands. Like most good animated movies, you get the feeling this would work as a live action film as well.
The animation marks a technological leap for the Redwood City studio. The characters in the television spin-off “Dragons: Riders of Berk” cartoons look like cave drawings by comparison. It is by far the sharpest-looking DreamWorks Animation film to date.