“HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2" — 3 1/2 Stars — voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Craig Ferguson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse; PG (adventure action and some mild rude humor); in general release
If a good sequel is supposed to raise the stakes on its predecessor, then director Dean DeBlois’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a fantastic success.
Packing ample doses of exciting action and excellent animation, it is a surprisingly intense feature and anything but a rehash of 2010’s imaginative original.
Five years have passed since the events of the first film, and the viking citizens of Berk are living a peaceful coexistence with the dragon locals. The two societies have more or less merged into one, and they even hold regular dragon racing events for fun. It’s about as utopian an existence as you can ask for, assuming your concept of utopia provides for axe-wielding vikings riding fire-breathing dragons.
Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) has made great strides from his runt-of-the-litter status and is about to be named chief by his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), assuming he and his trusty dragon, Toothless, can be ripped from their daily exploring expeditions long enough to pay attention to any domestic issues. And now that things feel like they’re getting a bit more serious with Astrid (America Ferrara), the future seems secure for the series’ one-legged protagonist.
But then Hiccup and Toothless wander a little too far and get wind of a tyrant named Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who is building a dragon army to assault Berk. While the rest of the gang back home prepares for war, Hiccup leaves to talk some sense into Drago. But on the way, he and his dragon sidekick get sidetracked when they stumble across a dragon sanctuary led by a spooky dragon rider named Valka (Cate Blanchett).
When all these parties finally get together, you could say that things get heated. But even though the new film breaks a lot of new ground, fans of the original will be happy to see many of their favorite characters back on the screen. Craig Ferguson returns as Gobber, Jonah Hill plays Snotlout, and Kristen Wiig has another turn as Ruffnut.
The first film was a charming lesson in understanding between misunderstood parties, but where "How to Train Your Dragon" had a bit more in common with “ET,” the sequel seems to take its cues from the likes of “Lord of the Rings.” Aside from the dramatic battle scenes, Valka’s dragon rider costume looks a lot like a more colorful version of Tolkien’s Witch King. It’s still a PG-rated film, but the intensity of its battles and its dramatic imagery — especially once a couple of alpha dragons show up on the scene — are surprising for an animated kids' film.
In spite of all the action and heavy tone, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" still manages to inject enough humor in spots to diffuse the tension, but it often feels like an afterthought.
Humor and story aside, the biggest draw here is the impressive animation. Whether in dramatic battle scenes or thrilling flying sequences, the animators clearly set out with the intent of thrilling their audience, and it's hard to argue with their product. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is, of course, available in 3-D, but parents looking to save a few dollars should still get a fantastic viewing experience if they stick with the standard 2-D. It might be a little intense for the youngest kids, but everyone else is in for a great ride.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is rated PG for intense action and battle sequences, frightening imagery and some mild vulgarity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.