how to train your dragon 2 posterLike every other studio, DreamWorks Animation felt the pressure to do a sequel of a monster hit that would at least match and hopefully outshine its original (with a gross of anything less than hitting the half billion mark being seen as a failure).  Brought to the table was writer/director Dean DeBlois to take on Cressida Cowell’s YA book series, How to Train Your Dragon 2 should easily clear any such bar.

“No task is too small when it comes to serving your people.” – Stoick

Set five years after the previous movie, with, in a rare turn for an animated movie, all of the protagonists realistically aged, our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) aims to entirely skip any awkward phase and move straight to handsome young adult.  His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) still attempts to mold him into the proper successor, well, his idea of the proper successor to run their now dragon sanctuary village, Berk.

Hiccup still follows his heart, often leaving the village to follow his fancy on his faithful dragon, Toothless.  Despite capturing the spirit of a boy and his horse, Toothless still comes across as somewhere between between a cat and a big puppy.

Hiccup still has his circle of friends–Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnutt (T.J. Miller) and twin sister Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig)–and most notably his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera).  But the movie, despite the bookend sequences featuring them in a dragon race, quickly moves away from any obvious romp featuring them.

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.” – Stoick

Instead Hiccup and Astrid are drawn into a mystery involving a heretofore unknown dragon species as well as a madman who seeks to control the alpha of the species (since he who controls the alpha controls all dragons).  Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) is a simpler brand of villain:  dragons + him = crushing all enemies.

However, complicating the story is the presence of Valka (Cate Blanchett) the dragon whisperer/Jane Goodall of the dragon set, and the polar opposite of Drago.   She protects a true dragon sanctuary, the only human allowed to know of its existence much less live among them for nearly two decades.  Thus paving the way for her role as Yoda training young Hiccup in the way of the dragon.

Between the natural tension between Hiccup and Stoick, the ease of Astrid and Hiccup, the gentle fondness among the circle of friends, the revelation of Valka, at the heart of the movie is the sense of family.  This backdrop makes the conflict and its repercussions that much more powerful.  The great thing about How to Train Your Dragon, either edition, is that it both respects and challenges its audience.  This time around, the movie commits to deeper themes allowed by its cast being older.  There is real loss and consequence to actions harkening back to any of a number of Disney movies like Bambi and The Lion King, while taking it to mythic levels.

“People are not capable of change.” – Valka

Whereas Hiccup was the moral compass in the first movie, here he is drifting in a way.  He doesn’t know who he is, part of him searching for a sense of his identity.  Even Toothless is searching for another Night Fury, rather than facing the possibility that he may be the last of his kind.  So much of our identity is grounded in the reflection of our parents.  Hiccup didn’t know his mother and can’t live up or into his father’s expectations.

We often have a distorted image of ourselves.  Like Hiccup, afraid to become his father because he never thought he could.  Believing instead various lies, like he was neither the chief his dad wanted him to be nor the peacekeeper he thought he was.  Instead, we need to remember who we are and who we were created to be, and embracing our giftings.  Only then can we echo Hiccup’s journey to his true self, and realize he has the heart of a chief and the soul of the dragon.

“This is who you are, son.” – Valka

How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages to reinvigorate the franchise by expanding the world and deepening the mythology.  To call the animation visually dazzling, majestic, and lush (with a deft use of 3-D) almost seems too obvious.  Almost like saying that this is a great sequel and a great movie.