You’d be forgiven for thinking “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is just another 3-D computer-animated sequel your kids will drag you to the cineplex to see.
It is all of those things. But it is also something more.
After all, the first film based on Cressida Cowell’s best-selling children’s books ended with the main character losing part of his leg. This isn’t just kids’ stuff.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” rises above its animated peers with more troubling themes, outstanding character design and innovative “camera” movements. And it rarely, if ever, takes the easy way out.
The sequel picks up with Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) as a young man in his early 20s. As faithful followers of the Cartoon Network series know, he has fully transformed his Viking village of Berk into a haven for dragons. While his kinsmen spend their time playing a cross-pollination of basketball, Quidditch and sheep abuse, Hiccup searches the borders of his world for more flying lizards.
He finds instead a band of trappers out gathering dragons for their terrifying leader, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), as well as a mysterious masked dragon-whisperer with a connection to his past.
The first “Dragon” was nominated for the best animated film Oscar in 2011. And while it perhaps rightfully lost to “Toy Story 3,” the film picked up a slew of Annie Awards from the International Animated Film Society. Among them: writing, character design, voice acting and, for creator Dean DeBlois, directing.
And yet, the second chapter improves on the first.
The film, on which iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) served as consultant, puts you astride the back of dragons as they soar and dip and float and fall in accordance with the laws of physics. It’s thrilling. The animators actually took the time to do the math to make characters fall as they should.
There are hundreds more dragons in this go-round, most of which are unique in shape, color and movement. Hiccup’s matte-black dragon, Toothless, looks plain in comparison. In characterization, however, Toothless stands out, much like the humans who surround him.
Early on in the film, Hiccup impersonates the bluster of his father (the bearded giant Stoick, voiced by Gerard Butler), while his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), impersonates Hiccup’s sheepish responses. It’s a nice scene, where Hiccup and Astrid exaggerate but nail each character’s facial expressions and physical tics.
Later, two characters are reunited after decades and exchange verses of a love song (written for the film by the legendary Irish singer/songwriter and frontman of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan). Only their faces are shown as they run through the emotions of sadness, hope, shame, wistfulness, realization and joy. Several times I had to blink and think, “Wait, these are cartoons.”
A couple of words of warning for parents: There is a death that comes as a shock both in who it is and how it occurs. And if you decide to pay the 3-D upcharge, find a theater that does 3-D well. Our screening was occasionally too dark for some of the low-lit scenes.
Despite an occasional clunk in its kid-movie themes of world peace and environmentalism, the storytelling is strong and poignant. And the film certainly handles female characters better than Pixar’s finest efforts (though maybe not Disney’s “Frozen”).
DeBlois and his team have created a rare sequel that makes you eager to see where the series goes next. By the time No. 3 arrives in 2016, you may be the one dragging the kids to the cineplex.
To reach David Frese, call 816-234-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DavidFrese
‘HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2’
Rated PG | Time: 1:42
3-D or not 3-D?
The flying and swooping make it worth the upcharge, but choose a theater that you know does 3-D well. A few scenes are too dark for the dim projection of some theaters in the metro.