2010’s How to Train Your Dragon threatened to be a rather conventional secret-pet kids’ flick, but for several reasons – the undeniably cute creature at its center, John Powell’s rousing score, genuinely immersive 3D flying sequences and an ending with unexpected emotional heft – it managed to be both a pleasant surprise and a financial success. Shocking as it sounds, DreamWorks Animation went ahead with not just a sequel but the middle chapter in a newly fashioned trilogy, inventively titled How to Train Your Dragon 2.
We return to the island of Berk five years after its Viking occupants have learned to tame the local dragon population following decades of mutual destruction. Rather than heeding advice from aging father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler) on leading his kingdom when the time comes, 20-year-old inventor and preeminent dragon trainer Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has left responsibility behind in order to explore the farthest reaches of the horizon aboard his preferred means of transportation, Toothless. However, these expeditions soon lead to encounters with a pair of heretofore unknown dragon masters, Valka (Cate Blanchett) and Drago (Djimon Hounsou), each with their own plans for the creatures.
The result is plenty colorful and amusing enough, but in contrast to the film’s admirably simple charms involving a codependent companionship built on fear and trust, writer/director Dean DeBlois ladles on the usual sequel mentality. There are more characters, more beasts, more battles, more gadgets and more family-minded developments, and yet none of those elements carry quite the same weight; this is franchise-driven world-building first and foremost.
The influence of The Empire Strikes Back is readily apparent between the often icy environments and steeper stakes (DeBlois has admitted as much in interviews), and although the original’s entire voice cast has reprised its roles, Baruchel and America Ferrera (as Hiccup’s now-girlfriend, Astrid) contribute subtly mature work bringing their lead characters forth from their teens into something resembling adulthood.
For those willing to entertain such hair-splitting, Toothless’ personality has transformed from demonstrating a vaguely feline sense of affection to a more canine-like loyalty. Either way, the character remains a thoroughly endearing animated creation without ever saying a word.
As for the recurring matter of human legacies, Dragon 2’s themes fall in line with the studio’s well-worn favorites: Shrek 2 was also about living up to parental expectations, while sequels to Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda similarly dwelt on the protagonist’s long lost heritage.
What’s meant to be an emotional entry point instead feels like a distinctly formulaic development, and though this ‘toon doesn’t lack heart amid all the high-flying antics, it may have benefited from a heartier dose of imagination.
The Upside: The computer-generated animation is unsurprisingly impeccable; Toothless remains as adorable as ever.
The Downside: Although agreeable enough, this sequel is more busy than heartfelt or exciting.
On the Side: How to Train Your Dragon 3 is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.