[b The sequel is gleeful and smart, funny and serious, and surpasses the endearing original with gorgeous animation and one stirring human encounter after another[/b
Most sequels get made for commercial reasons, whether or not the world needs them. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a movie the world needs. Gleeful and smart, funny and serious, this sequel surpasses the endearing original with gorgeous animationâ€”a dragon Eden, a dragon scourge, an infinitude of dragonsâ€”and one stirring human encounter after another. The Viking hero, Hiccup, was previously a boy for all seasons, but the saga of his passage into manhood is especially welcome in a summer season that is notably short, thus far, on entertainment for kids to embrace and families to enjoy.
The new film, in vivid 3-D, was written and directed by Dean DeBlois. (He was co-director, with Chris Sanders, and a co-writer the first time around.) That’s notable, too, a solo filmmaker in charge of such a huge enterprise, and it’s a good clue to the production’s dramatic coherence. Many themes are explored, some of them essential to Hiccup’s understanding of the adult world, but always through his charmingly mercurial sensibility; action, rather than preachment, is the narrative’s teaching tool.
When last seen on the big screen four years ago, Hiccup had bonded with an injured dragon he named Toothless, proved that dragons could be man’s best friends, and won his father’s respect in the process. Now, barely out of his teens (though still voiced with wry charm by Jay Baruchel), he’s faced with grave responsibilitiesâ€”his father wants him to lead the tribeâ€”and beset by self-doubt: “I know I’m not my father, and I never met my mother, so what does that make me?”
What that makes him, in the context of impending events, is a phenomenally confident self-doubter. A very bad guy named Drago, Hiccup learns, is threatening the tribe with a dragon army. The hero’s father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), responds to the threat by shutting the city’s gates and preparing for war. Hiccup, however, climbs aboard Toothless and seeks Drago out, hoping to show the mad tyrant the error of his ways. The movie’s main concern may be dragons, but it’s also about hawks and doves. Indeed, audiences of a certain age, meaning old, might sense the ghost of Neville Chamberlain hovering over Hiccup as he learns the danger of appeasing a mad dictator.
For audiences of any age, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” turns deeply affecting whenâ€”I’m giving away nothing that the trailers haven’t revealed, even though I wish they hadn’tâ€”a mysterious dragon rider proves to be Valka, Hiccup’s long-lost mother. Better still, his mother is voiced by Cate Blanchett with a startlingly original mixture of maternal warmth, seductive allure and calm authority.
Valka is a terrific character in a film that doesn’t lack for them. A compulsive rescuer (she has created an enchanted refuge for injured dragons) and a pacifist by inclination (she left Hiccup’s father because of his warlike ways), she switches to woman warrior (and blithe wing-walker) when the situation demands it. “That’s your mother?” says Hiccup’s young friend Astrid (America Ferrera), who’s no slouch herself in the department of female empowerment. “Now you know where I get my dramatic flair,” Hiccup replies.
The film’s dramatic flair manifests itself frequently, both in expected and surprising ways: an exquisitely tender moment that reunites Hiccup’s family; a lovely ballad that Stoick sings to the wife he thought he’d lost forever (why these Vikings have thick Scottish, Shrek-ish accents is befuddling, but they do); a climactic battle with Drago’s forces in which Hiccup shows himself to be his mother’s as well as his father’s son. As for visual flair, the dragons are riotously varied in physiqueâ€”they’d stand out in the Mos Eisley Cantinaâ€”and giddily lyrical in flying sequences that make your spirit soar. The vocal cast includes Jonah Hill (not his only movie this week), Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington and Djimon Hounsou, who gives Drago, the human villain, a voice befitting a dragon.