Grown-ups. The secret is making them grown-ups.
It’s a rather amazing concept, though Toy Story 2 and 3 did the same thing on a slightly subtler scale. Age your animated characters from childhood to adulthood, and let the drama write itself. That concept serves How to Train Your Dragon 2 exceedingly well, especially since the franchise is turning into quite a cash cow, and big changes like that make the suits nervous. But someone on the creative team got the idea in their heads, and the result is a much improved product up on screen. What could have been a two-hour episode of the TV show suddenly morphs into a real and substantive story, all with only the basic concept to lead the way.
Without that, the movie would still be decent, though basically what we’d expect. An evil warlord (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) has raised an army of dragons and intends to use them to overthrow the Viking island of Berk, where the inhabitants continue to prosper under the slightly thickheaded rule of King Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler). Thanks to Sotick’s lad Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), dragons now live side-by-side with the rest of the village as partners and companions. Hounsou’s Drago aims to crash that party, but Hiccup’s in his 20s now, and a lot less inclined to just sit back and let him.
The film has enough ammunition in its corner to establish a reliable baseline of quality. The CGI is gorgeous, and director Dean DeBlois hasn’t lost his touch for spectacular aerial choreography. The animators get to bring some new dragon species into the mix as well, all of whom retain the clever quirks and depth of personality that made their predecessors so endearing. How to Dragon 2 also knows which components to keep intact and which to infuse with fresh juice. Hiccup’s dragon buddy Toothless gets the best of it, still acting like someone’s goofy cat and still willing to move heaven and earth for his human pal. But Hiccup’s slowly expanding gang of human friends do quite well too, as does the marvelous scenery which includes great frozen waves of water created by one of the film’s show-stopping beasties. (Cate Blanchett also carries a nice subplot to the finish line as Hiccup’s mysterious mother seemingly back from the dead.)
That all would work regardless, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had the filmmakers let Hiccup and his friends stay teenagers. But they have real responsibilities now, and the Scooby-Doo vibes that could have sunk this thing are nowhere to be seen. Drago doesn’t quite take them seriously, but the rest of us can see the shift, and it gives them a lot more depth that it would if the filmmakers had stuck with business as usual. It also helps the more pedestrian elements feel fresh and keeps the various beats of the storyline from falling into predictability. Some mistakes wiggle through here and there (the dialogue gets a little simplistic sometimes), but they rarely provoke anything more than mild disappointment.
The rest of the film maintains the same standards that the first one did, and should make a mint in the process. The money is well deserved. More than any other, animated sequels tend to rest on their laurels, cranking out cheap jokes for the kiddies and lame pop-culture references for the grown-ups. You can see the threat of that looming here, but DeBlois deftly avoids the easy answers in favor of something much more interesting. It’s happened before (Toy Story 2 and 3 come to mind, and the surprisingly marvelous Madagascar 3), but remains an anomaly nonetheless. How to Train Your Dragon 2 demonstrates that value of a little extra effort, and in the process helps continue this summer’s surprising cinematic win streak.