The seaside village of Berk, once a war-torn land that pitted Vikings against dragons, has become something of a paradise. So we're told by Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the teenager who in this franchise's first entry made friends with a Night Fury dragon he would name Toothless. An end of hostilities! And no messy prisoner swaps!
How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes place five years after the first movie, and these days, Vikings ride dragons everywhere. It's opened up a whole new world and Hiccup is Berk's favorite son. He's also in line to be the next chief. Stoick (Gerard Butler) has been dropping hints at every opportunity that he wants to step aside and leave the fate of Berk in his only child's hands.
This is not Hiccup's destiny, as you would expect from any character sulking around with Jay Baruchel's voice. He wants to chart new and far-off lands—what good is being able to fly a dragon if you don't?—and that's what gets Hiccup into trouble. He stumbles onto a rogue team of dragon trappers, who sell the majestic beasts to a serious baddie named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). But wait, don't these guys know dragons are sweet and gentle? Don't they know dragons are just misunderstood?
As boy-and-his-dog movies go, How to Train Your Dragon and this sequel are both pretty effective at building the connection between our two central characters. In Dragon 2, Hiccup rarely calls Toothless by his name, instead opting for "Bud" or telling the dragon it's his best friend, the kind of familiarity any dog owner can surely understand. That kind of love and admiration for dragons, along with the tireless caretaking done by a surprise character in the film, leads to implied suggestions for all the young ones in the crowd to adopt abandoned animals. A worthy mission, no doubt. Unlike the overt preachiness of some animated fare that try to lay the groundwork for a lifetime of good deeds (The Lorax was especially heavy-handed), the takeaway is presented with subtlety, but it's definitely there.
Presuming that the audience from the first movie will carry over, Dragon 2 is also a lot darker and more emotionally mature. Drago Bludvist, silly though the name may seem to grownups (it's pronounced "Bloodfist"), is a pretty fierce character. Armed with Hounsou's voice and backed by his own gigantic dragon called the Alpha, he's a really legit bad guy and he ought to scare the bejesus out of smaller kids. And there are emotional complexities about life and death that hit the target for the slightly older ones.
We've seen Pixar's ironfisted rule in respectable, profitable animation challenged head-on over the past few years. Monsters University was fun, but it's been five years since Up, the last original masterpiece Pixar released. In the meantime, this franchise and Despicable Me have become the must-sees. True, Disney did just shatter cash registers with Frozen, but it's good to see other studios do more with animation than just fire a bunch of talking animals at us every few months.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes some unexpected next steps, indicating that director Dean DeBlois (who also gave us Disney's Lilo & Stitch) is playing the long game here. He's developing an arc around characters and situations that adults can appreciate while giving kids just enough fun and high stakes to bring them back again and again.