Jay Baruchel-Hiccup and Toothless-fancy flying
Photo by DreamWorks Animation

Not many films escape the sequel curse, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of those happy exceptions to the rule. After a sensory-jarring opening sequence, meant (I suppose) to provide instantaneous action for young viewers weaned on video games, the movie gets down to business—and its business is spinning a good story.

Now that young Hiccup is a hero, and his pet dragon Toothless has brought peace and happiness to their ramshackle Viking kingdom, new challenges are introduced: a terrifying villain named Drago (menacingly voiced by Djimon Hounsou) who seeks to overpower all dragons, and an ethereal woman named Valka (well played by the great Cate Blanchett), who has created a haven for the misunderstood creatures. Valka turns out to be Hiccup’s mother, who abandoned him when he was a baby—for reasons we come to learn. Hiccup innocently believes that he can convince Drago to change his attitude, but he underestimates his opponent.

Writer-director Dean DeBlois, who made the first Dragon feature with his longtime partner Chris Sanders, builds a strong foundation for his characters, to guarantee rooting interest and make sure the stakes are serious enough to matter. This is a more serious film than its predecessor as loyalty, sacrifice, the meaning of family, and the nature of evil all come into play. Hiccup, voiced again by Jay Baruchel, is an instantly likable young man (no longer a boy), but instead of having to prove himself to his father, the tribal chief (Gerard Butler), as he did in the first movie, he is put to a series of tests, some of them wrenching and emotional. There is ample humor and some truly impressive action, masterfully staged (in 3-D) by DeBlois and his visual consultant, the gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins.

But it’s the serious underpinnings that make How to Train Your Dragon 2 so rich and satisfying. This is not a piece of animated fluff: it’s a movie of surprising substance that offers real rewards.