The best sequels expand on their predecessor's ambitions without becoming soulless cash grabs. Our homogenized film culture often rewards the opposite scenario, those lowest-common-denominator retreads produced haphazardly to capitalize on market popularity. Occasionally, shining examples like Toy Story 2 or Babe: Pig in the City manage to say something profound about familiar characters, but they are rare gems in an overstuffed junkyard of disposable cinema.
On paper, Dean DeBlois' How to Train Your Dragon 2 has all the makings of another family-friendly sequel constructed to divert the attention of screaming children for a few hours. Thankfully, this couldn't be further from the truth. Retaining the joyous personality of the original 2010 blockbuster based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell, DeBlois' follow-up broadens its scope to confront more serious themes.
The story of Viking outcast Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has always been about identity, but in Dragon 2, we find his search externalized to include the mystical lands surrounding his coastal home of Berk.
If curiosity drives Hiccup to explore the horizons beyond, then a growing sense of responsibility fortifies this desire when he comes in contact with new challenges. But DeBlois makes a point of reminding us how gorgeous this picturesque environment of oceans and cliffs appears from atop a scaly beast. While his fellow young adults partake in a hilarious aerial game of herding sheep, Hiccup and his Night Fury, Toothless, glide through clouds and graze across waves, enjoying the freedom of flight. The wide-open spaces dominated by vibrant colors seemingly beckon them further into oblivion.
As with the first film, exploration of the unknown eventually leads to conflict. While mapping the outer areas of their lands, Hiccup and Toothless discover a group of dragon trappers led by a macho ruffian (voiced by Kit Harington, Jon Snow on Game of Thrones) who are trying to supply the warlord Drago (Djimon Hounsou) with a collection of rare fire breathers. Rhetoric about democracy and safety spew out of the villain's mouth, but anyone familiar with Nazism understands this is tyranny on the march.
Complicating matters for Hiccup and his father, Stoic (Gerard Butler), is the reemergence of their matriarch, Valka (Cate Blanchett), long thought dead by the entire community of Berk after a dragon whisked her away so many years before. During a crucial scene midway through Dragon 2, their family unit momentarily reassembles, providing Hiccup with a window into what could have been. Watching his mother and father reconnect seems to fill the void in his heart that's been driving him all along. When this sense of peacefulness evaporates during a brutal battle with Drago, it stings not only for Hiccup but also for the viewer, who's become so invested in his evolution.
Under the supervision of ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, the visuals in Dragon 2 are never less than stunning. Each pristine vista contains the level of detail one might find in the most complex landscape paintings. Yet the visuals are simply background dressing for the intriguing human dilemmas. Hiccup experiences the pressure of leadership and responsibility while trying once again to bridge the gap between humans and the dragons he so desperately wants to befriend. Late in the film, a brilliant battle sequence that takes place on the frigid shores of a polar icecap blurs the line between friend and foe even more.
Ultimately, Dragon 2—which opens Friday, June 13—might be too heady for young children, often favoring contemplative silence over explosions or gags. Yet it should be commended for not adhering to the assembly-line pressures of the Hollywood machine. Like Hiccup, it's a film brave enough to break off from the pack and forge new ground. What a difference a dragon makes.