Watching How to Train Your Dragon 2, you’re reminded of the thrill you felt when you saw your first computer-animated movie, be it Toy Story or A Bug’s Life or even the forgettable Antz. We’ve come to take the art form for granted, because there have been so many great ones (thanks, Pixar!). The ice castles of Frozen or the floating lanterns in Tangled momentarily stun us, then we’re on to the next thing. The ever-growing invasion of CGI in live-action movies, too, has robbed animated films of some of their impact. Visually, we’re jaded, which is part of the reason why the less-is-more approach used in Godzilla seemed so effective.
Dragon 2, which marks the return of director Dean DeBlois (a former Disney animator who directed Lilo & Stitch) has hundreds of gorgeous, jaw-dropping creatures — dragons of so many different colors and shapes and sizes, all of them soaring across the screen at the same time, that the effect is dizzying but never overwhelming: The movie offers just the right amount of spectacle. But there’s wonder, too, in the little things, such as the incredible detail and realism of the armor worn by Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), now five years older and no longer a teenager but still inseparable from his adorable dragon Toothless, a marvel of artistic design (sometimes, simpler is better). There were moments in the film when I caught myself marveling at the characters’ hair or the way the ocean waves moved. I don’t know if there’s any sort of new tool or technique at work in Dragon 2, but this is easily one of the most beautiful animated films ever made.
It’s one of the most exciting, too. Unlike most sequels, which feel like an extension of a story that became a hit, Dragon 2 feels like a true continuation, following Hiccup, his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara) and his Viking father (Gerard Butler) as they now live and work in peace among dragons, no longer treating them as a threat (the only catch are the constant accidental fires that need to be put out; even the tamest dragon can be a hazard).
The screenplay for Dragon 2, which was written by DeBlois and Cressida Cowell (author of the popular book series that spawned the movies), is rich with incident and adventure. Hiccup may be older, but he’s not quite yet a hero, and he has much to learn from a mysterious woman (Cate Blanchett) whose help he needs to fight off a relentless dragon hunter (Djimon Hounsou) armed with a formidable weapon. The movie comes up with all sorts of surprises, such as dragons that breathe ice instead of fire, and in the honored tradition of Disney classics, it dares to take some dark turns worthy of George R.R. Martin, minus the gore and violence, of course. This is first and foremost a children’s movie. But it also has weight and heft, and it doesn’t settle for reprising the rib-tickling thrills of the first film, which turned Hiccup’s dragon rides into swooping roller-coaster visuals. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is its own standalone picture, with a surprising range of emotions that surpasses the original and a brisk pace and manner of storytelling that give it purpose and direction. The fact that it’s also so much fun, no matter what your age, almost feels like a bonus.