My biggest complaint about ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is that I can’t tell if it’s better than its predecessor or not.  If you’ve seen the
original, you know that’s a very good problem to have.

‘Dragon 2’ is a sequel that invests in its characters while providing superb visuals and stunning action sequences.

Picking up five years after the first film, the Viking island of Berk is now a haven where humans and dragons live together in peace.

The film opens with a dragon racing sequence that, while obviously extraneous, is fun to watch and showcases the film’s outstanding
animation and energetic direction by Dean DeBlois.

When the film reintroduces series protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), however, it becomes obvious ‘Dragon 2’ is more than a rehash and
does indeed have a story to tell.

Hiccup is given an impressive amount of development.  He has close to an overabundance of strong dramatic material.

There is a scene early on between Hiccup and his lady love, Astrid (America Ferrera).  It’s an incredibly sweet interaction that doesn’t beat
us over the head with romance clichés.  They have an organic chemistry through natural dialog and subtle animation.  Hiccup’s father Stoick
(Gerard Butler) intends to pass on his role as chief to his son.  Despite Hiccup’s impressive standing among the people, he doesn’t believe
in himself.  He doesn’t see himself as a strong, fierce leader as his father is.

Hiccup simply wants to fly his dragon (the adorable Toothless) and explore the world around him.

Much of ‘Dragon 2’ revolves around the family dynamic, but does so in a way that is far more effective than most.

While exploring, Hiccup and Astrid discover a group of dragon catchers led by Erat (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington).  They catch dragons
for the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is building an army of the beasts which he can control through the use of a giant ‘alpha’ dragon.  
Drago is a fairly uninspired villain, unmemorable with weak motivations.  At least Hounsou’s performance and some good character design
make him a suitably threatening presence.

Drago has a history with Stoick, who believes that Berk must now prepare for inevitable war.  Hiccup refuses to believe Drago can’t be
reasoned with and flies off to broker peace with the madman.

Hiccup is soon captured by a dragon rider who is revealed to be his long lost mother, Valka.  Voiced by Cate Blanchett, Valka lives among
dragons on a sanctuary island.  These sequences showcase some stunning art direction and the reunion of mother and son is surprisingly
poignant.  Hiccup obviously takes after his mother, with her great love of dragons, and the two instantly bond.

There are a number of touching scenes involving Valka, such as when she apologizes to Hiccup for not being in his life, or her reunion with
Stoick.

Eventually Drago attacks the sanctuary, and the ensuing battle is stunningly directed and scored with pure adrenaline by composer John
Powell.  

Powell’s music is every bit as superb as it was in the first film, combining his great existing themes with exceptional new material.  The use
of choir is stunning, at times evoking memories of the late Basil Poledouris’ classic works.  This is a magnificent score that features equal
parts raw energy, majesty and emotion.  When I complain about how generic and emotionally barren most blockbusters scores currently are,
this is the antithesis.  It elevates every element of the film.

The aftermath of Drago’s attack is powerfully directed and further solidifies the Hiccup character.  Where the first film was a story about
friendship and acceptance, ‘Dragon 2’ is about growing up and self-realization.  Hiccup’s journey in the film is an extremely satisfying tribute
to the classical morality tales.

Frustratingly, however, ‘Dragon 2’ retains the irritating, juvenile antics of Hiccup and Astrid’s peers.  Now fellow dragon riders, their
dimwitted dialog is just as tiresome as in the previous film.  They are not funny and clash with an otherwise intelligent film.  They feel solely
there to earn some cheap laughs from the little kiddies.  They repeat the same jokes endlessly (Ruffnut likes Erat, we get it!) and there are
even two separate instances of that tired old cliché where the word “ass” (as in “kick your ass!”) is obscured by sound effects.

As before, these lapses in intelligence hurt an otherwise exceptional film.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a top shelf sequel that matches the high standard of the original film.  Fans of the original are not only
treated to enhanced visuals and bigger action, but satisfying character development and genuinely emotional storytelling.

I call it: How to make your sequel.

* * * ½
(out of four)
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR
DRAGON 2

Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler,
Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill

Music by: John Powell

Released: June 13, 2014; 102 Minutes