The first How to Train Your Dragon movie stood out from the mass of CGI animated films, creating a genuine sense of wonder and excitement without overdoing the rapid-fire jokes that often bog down such would-be crowd-pleasers.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is another pleasant surprise, deepening the original's story and raising the emotional stakes. While it lacks the sheer fun of the first film, it creates a darker universe with a real sense of consequences, and is surprisingly ambitious for a children's movie.
Unusually for an animated film, Dragon 2 has allowed its characters to age between installments (the intervening years have been chronicled on the awkwardly-titled Cartoon Network series DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk). The once-gawky brainiac Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is now a strapping 20-year-old and the pride of his village—though he'd rather be exploring remote islands astride his retractable-fanged dragon Toothless than taking over as chief from his father (Gerard Butler).
But the discovery of a band of dragon-trappers (led by a character voiced by Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington, who knows a thing or two about dragons) leads to threats from a new enemy (Djimon Hounsou) and a woman living among dragons in a sort of preserve (Cate Blanchett), who has secrets of her own.
A few plot twists that compose a major part of the story shouldn't be revealed here, but writer-director Dean DeBlois—taking over solo duties after co-writing and co-directing the first film—succeeds in opening up the previously established universe, creating a world where major characters aren't safe and seemingly small-scale conflicts in the beginning gain major import by the end.
The visuals remain spectacular, from the Quidditch-style game played in the opening to a stunning ice-breathing "Alpha" dragon called a "Bewilderbeast," which could go toe-to-toe with Godzilla in its size and scale. The sheer color and variety of the dragons and their environs inspire awe.
The movie isn't perfect. At times, Hiccup's actions seem irrational, and the final battle feels rushed after a startling second-act climax, which might be traumatic for very small children. But it's never dull, and unlike most animated sequels, you'll be ready for How to Train Your Dragon 3 by the end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Creature feature."