We live in the age of the mega-franchise. There’s simply no denying this. While superheroes may be dominating this arena right now, really any expensive to make film is expected to spawn sequels if not a multi-media empire. While this approach has led to some impressive films and cinematic universes, it has also lead to a great number of obligatory or half-baked ideas. Sequels to successful films increasingly feel like blatant cash grabs rather than means to tell new and exciting stories with known characters. It’s this current environment that makes a sequel like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” feel so refreshing.
The new film picks up five years after the events of the previous film (and also following the two seasons of the subsequent TV show, for those who were following that.) The Vikings of Berk and the local dragons have formed a strong bond and their days of battling each other have long been forgotten. Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless have been mapping out the surrounding areas near Berk, partly as a way for Hiccup to avoid the pressure from his father (returning actor Gerard Butler) to assume the mantle of chief. On one such outing Hiccup and Toothless find not only a new nest of wondrous dragons, but also a ruthless man (voiced by newcomer Djimon Hounsou) who is capturing dragons to build an unstoppable army.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is everything that a sequel should be, and so often isn’t. First it expands the world, quite literally in this case thanks to Hiccup’s venturing out to map out more and more of the lands and seas away from his village. All of the characters who were so fun in the first film return, but they are also used wisely. Often times in a sequel, popular character will be shoehorned in where they don’t fit just so they can be on screen again. That’s not the case here, and while all appear they are never given more screen time than the story requires of them. Despite that, they still feel fleshed out and there’s a fair amount of story going on in the background which is laid out by the characters’ interactions and dialogue. It helps the world feel complete in that respect.
As before, family dynamics are a fairly major part of the story. Taking on these kinds of issues again could have led to a great deal of retreading the ground that the first film covered. Thankfully, that pitfall is skillfully sidestepped. The growth in the relationship between Hiccup and his father is maintained and there are new elements introduced to bring on new shakeups in their relationship. All of it flows very well and it never feels forced. The story aspects surrounding all of this actually give the film more than a few genuinely touching moments.
There’s a surprising maturity to the film as a whole. It doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the world that’s been created, and it presents those aspects without pandering. It brings to mind the best of Disney animation films such as “The Lion King,” in which dark or even troubling moments are presented plainly without being softened. The filmmakers know that kids can handle it, and don’t feel the need to pad the impact of these moments.
Visually “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is simply spectacular. This had been a strong point of the previous entry as well, and it’s even stronger this time around. The flight and action sequences are miraculous, and truly deserve to be seen in 3D (it’s one of the few films worth paying the extra cost to see that way.) But it’s not just high octane action that gives the film its visual beauty. The movie also knows when to slow things down and just give the audience a chance to marvel at the world and the creatures that are being presented, bringing to mind the quieter moments that helped James Cameron build such a convincing world in “Avatar.”
As a bonus, this film does not require that audiences have seen the first one. There’s a quick bit of recap at the front to bring new viewers up to speed, and everything that happens after that is not dependent on what came before. Of course, those who have a history with these characters are likely to take away a bit more because of a built in love but as far as just the story goes it’s absolutely new viewer friendly. The film is exciting, touching, and above all joyous. Perfect family entertainment, but truly a film that can and will appeal to all ages whether they have a family to bring to the theater or not.
Final Score: 5 out of 5