There are certainly films aimed at younger audiences that I may not enjoy as much as they do, but I can still see the appeal that a younger person might find in it. But in that rarest of instances (although it happened to me with this year's THE LEGO MOVIE too, so maybe it's not as rare as it used to be), I actually found myself being somewhat transported back to childhood and remembering the things in the world that used to tantalize me and that I used to obsess over, one of which was a world in which dragons roamed small corners of the earth. I'm fairly certain that fixation began after my first time reading THE HOBBIT, or maybe it was after I saw SLEEPING BEAUTY for the first time. But I know the last time I felt this crazed about dragons was last weekend at a screening of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and not during one of the many films and television series that feature dragons presently.
In this viking universe, set five years after the first film and still led by Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), dragons are now part of the landscape, and everyone seems to have one as a pet. Stoick's son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his sleek black dragon Toothless are the greatest flying combination in the land. But one day, they stumble upon a group of dragon trappers who are collecting all of the known dragons for their mysterious boss, eventually revealed to be one Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou), who has a history with the vikings and unnatural need to rule the planet by controlling all dragons using the telepathic controls of his monster-sized alpha dragon.
Hiccup runs back home to warn his clan, but decides that he's a good enough netogiator to convince Drago not to invade their home and steak its dragons. On the way to find Drago, Hiccup is snatched by another Dragon Rider named Valka, who has a strange (if slightly predictable) connection to his past and is voiced by Cate Blanchett. She oversees a secret ice cave that houses something like a dragon sanctuary loaded with hundred of the unique and colorful creatures. The sheer volume of creativity that went into designing each dragon and making them different from each other in some way is breathtaking. Director and co-writer Dean DeBlois (who co-directed the first film, as well as the wildly entertaining LILO & STITCH) has a true gift for not making sure his actors don't overplay their lines—a common flaw in animated fare—and that his animators never forget to use their imaginations in dragon designs.
As with the first film, Hiccup is surrounded by a funny bunch of friends and supporting characters, including those voiced by Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, Kristen Wig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Craig Ferguson, and even Kit Harrington from "Game of Thrones." There is certainly plenty of kid-friendly humor in DRAGON 2, but the real surprise is how mildly terrifying things can get, especially in the big battle sequence between Drago's forces and Stoick's army. I won't lie, the alpha dragons (there are two here) freaked me the hell out.
But almost as impressive as the variety of dragons is the vast landscapes that act as playgrounds, battlegrounds and foregrounds for all of characters. I've essentially stopped mentioning in my reviews how a film that can be viewed in 3-D looks, because so few of them these days really make a difference; but DRAGON 2 is a 3-D sensation, rendered bright and crisp and beautifully layered and textured. Those dragon POV flight sequences are going to make your stomach do flips. At this point, it should probably be mentioned that the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is again credited as a creature consultant on the film; that alone should be encouraging news.
I'm also a fan of messages of this movie, from the boy and his flying pet relationship, which is threatened severely in DRAGON 2, to themes of diplomacy vs. war, family, how Hiccup and Toothless are basically soul mates with their artificial limbs that somehow bond them. It's a beautiful, elegant, nicely written and sweeping epic animated work that ranks among the best of what any animation house has given us in the last 10 years (at least). Above all else, it's a film that makes you afraid to blink for fear of missing some fantastic new creature or other visual treat. If it were only that, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. But HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is so much more; it's magnificent as both a visual and plot-driven production.