Were a film’s value determined chiefly by its amount and variety of dragons, How To Train Your Dragon 2 would soar instantly to the top of the cinematic ranks. Even more so than its 2010 predecessor, this animated adventure delivers on the flying critter front. There are fearsome dragons and dopey dragons, dragons with multiple heads and exaggerated toothy maws, dragons of all shapes and sizes and colors. There’s a dragon as big as a mountain and as pale as the moon, commanding a flock of other dragons. And, again, there’s Toothless, the hero’s dragon, a jet-black beast still blessed with the adorable disposition of a house cat and the fierce loyalty of a trusty hound.
No more than a minute or two ever pass without one of these creatures bounding into sight. Even scenes of heated conversation between the human characters tend to feature a little background dragon slapstick, as though the animators were fulfilling a mandate to pack every frame with the title attractions. But the uptick in reptiles doesn’t constitute an overall improvement; like so many other sequels, How To Train Your Dragon 2 privileges quantity over quality. There aren’t just more dragons, but more characters, more plot, more everything. The trade-off is that the charm of the original gets a little lost, a casualty of rapid-franchise expansion.
Picking up five years after the events of part one, the film returns to the once-bleak island of Berk, transformed in peacetime into a Dinotopia-like paradise. Hiccup, the most pacifistic Viking in all of the North Sea, is now a strapping 20-year-old man, though he still speaks with the pinched nasal whine of Jay Baruchel. Having forged an unlikely peace between his own stubborn people and the fire-breathing monsters they once reviled, Hiccup spends every day with his head literally in the clouds, traversing the heavens on the scaly back of his winged companion. For a while, it seems as though his only care in the world might be telling his overbearing chieftain father (Gerard Butler) that he’s not especially interested in taking the family mantle. Soon, however, Hiccup rides Toothless into real trouble, getting mixed up in the conflict between a ruthless dragon enslaver (Djimon Hounsou) and the mysterious bandit liberating his menagerie.
The original Dragon, a high-water mark for DreamWorks Animation, had a simple-but-resonant narrative, built around the close bond that develops between a boy and his exotic pet. Straying farther from the source material—a series of children’s novels by British author Cressida Cowell—HTTYD2 echoes the themes of the first movie without deepening them. The father-son conflict is less urgent, as Hiccup has already proven himself worthy of the family name, and the series stays firmly on point by recycling its messages, reminding viewers that it’s never too late for a change of heart. Writer-director Dean DeBlois reassembles the supporting cast—a fine ensemble that includes Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson—but can’t think of much for their characters to do. That also goes for the newcomers, including Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington, who voices a cocky pirate, and Hounsou, who struggles to lend dimension to his diabolical heavy. (Given all the talk of overcoming prejudice, there’s something unfortunately ironic about the way the film makes its only non-white character an irredeemable villain.)
Despite a couple of heavy plot points—parents should be prepared to field some serious questions on the drive home—How To Train Your Dragon 2 probably functions best as stereoscopic eye-candy, pouring millions of studio dollars into the creation of teeming dragon hoards and the staging of kinetic, airborne pursuits. Early on, Hiccup takes Toothless on a sky-scraping joy ride, their daredevil maneuvers set to the melodic majesty of another Jónsi pop anthem. In such moments, the audience may feel as liberated—as high on altitude and velocity—as the characters. But the last film offered more than a fleeting head rush; it was uncommonly soulful family entertainment, mostly because it took the time to develop its relationships, be they familial or inter-special in nature. Dragons, cool as they are, can’t fill that void alone.