How to Train Your Dragon 2
Sophomore films - much like middle children - often have difficulties bridging between a highly successful initial movie and those that follow them; in many cases, this phenomenon can be traced to the reality that a simple storyline, crafted for the purposes of a short-term need (a single film), requires significant expansion to support a franchise. The resulting exposition can drag a sequel - and it partially does so in "How to Train Your Dragon 2." The film is neither quite as adorable nor entertaining as its predecessor, but what it loses in childish glee is gains in maturity, making it a worthy addition to this summer's lineup at the box office.
When last we left Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his cuddly black dragon Toothless, they had helped reconcile the Vikings of Berk with the dragons who had been terrorizing them (and vice versa). Five years later, Hiccup and Toothless have grown larger, and Hiccup has been selected to succeed his father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) as chief of the tribe. It's not a mantle that fits well to the gangly young man, despite the support of his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) - and things go from bad to worse when Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) emerges to wrest control of Berk's favorite pets.
I won't be spoiling anything when I reveal that the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) turns out to be Hiccup's long-lost mother - you'd have to have had your head under a Gronckle to be surprised by that - but the complexity of her character is a welcome addition. Eret Son of Eret (Kit Harington) provides less value as a beefcake dragon hunter, although he does provide some coloring outside of the lines for Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
The storyline is quite darker - parents with kids, be warned - and more complex, which leads to a bit of drag during exposition sequences. In fact, the entire film lacks the careening momentum of "How to Train 1," which is a bit of a mystery given the amount of preproduction required for this type of animated venture. Even John Powell's music seems to have diminished in effect - although that may be due to the lack of extraordinary flying sequences that made his score soar in the first film. It's hard not to wonder if the somewhat disjointed results here would have been avoided had Chris Sanders remained involved with the team.
The animation at work, however, is first-rate, and in 3-D, the movie is a visual treat. New worlds/islands/dragons are both colorful and viscerally exciting, particularly the larger beasties and Valka's sanctuary against Drago's dragon hunting ways. And if the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless was delightful in the original, it's doubly so here, particularly as the dragon acts even more like a fire-breathing, joyful pup.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" has all the right elements: wonderful characters, shockingly great animation, and a well-crafted plot that deepens the lore of the world as it offers new antagonists to fight. And if those elements don't quite click as well this time around, they still represent the best animated film we've seen this year.