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Film review: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2'

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A top-drawer piece of animated filmmaking, 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon” was supremely entertaining for kids while also gently imparting life lessons about finding your identity and overcoming handicaps, both physical and spiritual. The sequel is essentially more of the same, not breaking a lot of new ground story-wise but satisfactorily bringing back the old gang for another whiz-bang go-round.

If it feels thematically lighter, that’s because it is. If it also seems zippier and more pure fun, that’s because it is.

Five years have passed on the Viking island of Berk since the chief’s awkward son, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), flipped the script and convinced the former dragon-fighters that the mighty reptiles were meant to be their companions and mounts, not their enemies. There’s peace and prosperity, virtually everyone has their own pet dragon, and Hiccup no longer feels like the outcast offspring of his mighty father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who is determinedly duty- and muscle-bound.

No longer a gangly teen, Hiccup is more self-assured and settled. He’s even filled out a bit, though in Hiccup’s case that means progressing from painfully thin to merely scrawny.

His best buddy, Toothless, is a rare (so far unique) Night Fury dragon, sleek black death on the wing. Toothless lost part of his tail due to Hiccup’s experimental tinkering, which also fixed him up with a prosthetic replacement. Hiccup has applied those same skills to his own missing leg, injured during a battle against the huge dragon that was compelling its smaller ilk to constantly raid Berk.

Former competitor-turned-girlfriend Astrid is back, a warrior born. She’s sprightly voiced by America Ferrera, who also supplies a wickedly funny impression of Baruchel’s distinctive speech and mannerisms.

Also returning is Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Stoick’s reliable right-hand man and best friend, and the crew of young cutup dragon riders, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse among them.

Hiccup has been spending his time exploring the surrounding isles, and makes a few disturbing discoveries. Some dragon trappers (Kit Harington plays their leader) have been enslaving the winged creatures for a shadowy general named Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who is said to be building a dragon army and have his sights set on Berk.

Hiccup also encounters a mysterious dragon rider whose affinity with the beasts rivals his own; she (Cate Blanchett) turns out to have a painful past with a personal connection.

Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed the first film with Chris Sanders (who departed to work on “The Croods”), takes over solo screenwriting and directing duties. The visuals really pop in this movie, from the slightly reflective nature of Toothless’ ebony scales to the nifty fiery sword gadget Hiccup created for his personal weapon. The flying scenes, in many ways the heart of the original film, are somehow even more exhilarating.

The culminating battle has a bit of a familiar ring, and I wish DeBlois & Co. could have come up with an existential threat that doesn’t feel so much like a retread. To some extent he’s trapped by the series of children’s books upon which these movies are based, though from what I understand it’s a fairly loose adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s novels.

Still, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is first-rate moviemaking, a superior piece of entertainment sure to please parents just as much as their young’uns. A third film has been announced for 2016, and I for one am already counting the days.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
Starring: Voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. PG: for violence and crude humor. 102 min. Score: 3.5 out of four; 4.5 out of five; B+ out of A-E.
Last modified: June 12, 2014
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