How to Train Your Dragon 2 sets a new standard for excellence for the DreamWorks studio. Writer/director Dean DeBlois has created a powerful, exciting and touching film that proves animation can challenge the summer’s big-ticket live-action movies, just as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King did 20 years ago.

The story picks up five years after first film ended. Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) is no longer a scrawny, maladroit adolescent. He's been redesigned to look a little older and heavier, although he's still no fairy tale Prince Charming. He’s also more assured, buoyed by the affection of the spirited Astrid (America Ferrera), the approval of his formidable father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) and the respect of the entire village of Berk.

But his strongest bond is with Toothless, the dragon who is simultaneously his steed, pet and best friend. Hiccup's missing leg and Toothless' damaged tail provide visual reminders that neither character is complete without the other. Although Toothless' design hasn't really changed, he feels older and stronger; when he gets annoyed with Hiccup, he knocks his feet out from under him with a swipe of his tail. But he's still the playful dragon who bestows slobbery kisses "that don’t wash out."

Hiccup remains an inveterate tinkerer, devising a fiery sword and a suit that enables him to glide like a flying squirrel when he leaps into the clouds from Toothless' back in the dynamic flying sequences. Stoick thinks his son is ready to assume the duties of hereditary chief of Berk, but Hiccup doesn't feel up to the challenge. He prefers to explore the islands surrounding Berk with Toothless. These reconnaissance missions expand his vision of the world, but they also bring unexpected, dire consequences.

Far from the shores of Berk, Hiccup meets a masked dragon rider: Valka (Cate Blanchette), a woman whose bond with dragons is even stronger than his own. She's also his mother, who left 20 years ago when she failed to convince Stoick and the villagers in Berk to stop killing dragons and befriend them. She’s withdrawn to an ice-shrouded islet where she nurtures young and injured dragons under the protection of the gargantuan Bewilderbeast, the Alpha Dragon.

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Their tender reunion proves short-lived. In their search for the missing Hiccup, Astrid and the other teen-agers from Berk encounter Eret son of Eret (Kit Harington), who is trapping dragons to serve the brutal Drago Bluvist (Djimon Hounsou). Drago is assembling an army that will establish his dominion over all the islands and seas, and reduce dragons to slavery.

Hiccup, who fervently believes in peace among humans and friendship between humans and dragons, must challenge Drago and his forces. Their titanic battle is more exciting than the building smash-a-thons in Pacific Rim and Godzilla. Not only are the fight scenes more dynamically shot and directed, the audience feels a bond with Hiccup, Toothless and their friends that gives the conflict an immediacy sorely lacking in many live action blockbusters.

Like the "Harry Potter" movies, which built from minor conflicts to deadly threats, Dragon 2 is darker, more dramatic and more visually impressive than the first film. Like Harry, Hiccup has a destiny he must fulfill, whether he feels adequate to the task or not, to defend his friends and family. The dangers Hiccup faces are very real: DeBlois has created a story closer to an anime adventure or a classic action film than the milquetoast American animated features that pull their punches and dispose of villains by having them fall from great heights. These characters can be hurt and even killed. 

Visually, Dragon 2 is a stunner. The Bewilderbeast moves with a power that is more convincing and more interesting than Godzilla or many other recent monsters. DreamWorks' new "Premo" system allowed the artists to create some strikingly understated animation of the human characters. There are nuances in Hiccup's and Valka's expressions that communicate emotions more subtly than anything the studio has done previously. Toothless, who nearly stole the first film, remains equally vivid as the world’s biggest house cat - and as the redoubtable Night Fury, a dragon capable of destroying any foe with deadly blasts of flame.

After the idiot-savant heroes, goofy sidekicks and spunky, smart-mouth girls in so many recent American animated features, it’s a treat to spend time with complex, compelling characters. Hiccup isn’t just a doofus who makes cool gadgets; he's a young man with believable insecurities, afraid he'll fail to live up to his father’s heroic example. Valka spends her life nurturing the young and the weak, but that's a conscious choice, not a stereotype. Her gift for healing, like Aragorn’s in The Lord of the Rings, is a sign of strength, not weakness.

However, the emotional core of Dragon 2 is the bond Hiccup and Toothless share, a bond that reflects a belief in the power of love to bridge the gap between two beings who seem doomed to misunderstanding and enmity. It's a worthy message for a contentious, fragmented time. 

Although the lackluster work that precedes it belies the praise, Dragon is clearly the leading candidate for the Oscar for Animated Feature of 2014. But, like Beauty and the Beast and Up, it deserves recognition beyond the animation ghetto: How to Train Your Dragon 2 should be a contender for all the major Awards, including Best Picture.

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