How-to-Train-Your-Dragon-2-Poster-sliceHaving stopped the Red Death and ushered in a new age of human-dragon relations, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless have left Berk in the hope of spreading their message of inter-species solidarity to the rest of the viking world. It’s a belief they share with the former’s estranged mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who he encounters while trying to track down Drago Blundvist (Djimon Hounsou), a figure from his father Stoick’s (Gerard Butler) past who is in the process of building a dragon army. While he and his mother reconnect, Berk’s other dragon riders, Astrid (America Fererra), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (T. J. Miller) use dragon hunter Eret (Kit Harrington) to help find Drago.

It’s been something of a rocky road for DreamWorks Animation since How To Train Your Dragon appeared to herald brave new beginnings for the studio back in 2010. Rise Of The Guardians was an impressive effort but struggled to find an audience, while The Croods found commercial success but not critical favour. Turbo and Mr. Peabody and Sherman were substantially less worthy of either. But four years later Hiccup and Toothless are back, and while not quite as triumphant as the original, this sequel can still be considered a resounding success.

Intended as the second act in a trilogy, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is the Empire Strikes Back of the series — a comparison made by director Dean DeBlois himself. It’s certainly bigger in scope, introducing a trio of new characters — most notably Hiccup’s mother and an old nemesis of Stoick’s – not to mention the countless new dragons, including a couple of truly titanic Alphas and Valka’s bat-like Stormcutter, Cloudjumper. Whereas the first film was confined for the most part to Berk, the sequel takes audiences to Itchy Armpit and beyond.

Hiccup’s world hasn’t just grown larger, however, but more complex. This is no longer the story of a young boy acting out against his father, but of a young man learning what it means to be a leader. Hiccup’s relationship with Toothless has developed too, and rather than one trying to train the other, the friends are now on a much more even keel. Their relationship is still largely symbiotic, but when Hiccup unveils wings of his own and Toothless learns to compensate for his damaged tail it becomes apparent that they are also pushing for independence too. After all, Hiccup is now romantically involved with Astrid.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is considerably more mature than its predecessor, and given that the first film ended with the main character losing a limb that’s really saying something. Although it opens with fun and games, this picture quickly eschews such childish concerns in favour of emotional upheaval and difficult decisions. The levity is occasionally missed, but unusually for a children’s animation the more sentimental material works just as well. Hiccup’s reconnection with his mother (voiced beautifully — if inconsistently — by Blanchett, in many of the film’s most stirring scenes) is incredibly poignant, while the third act goes to some surprisingly dark places.

If there’s a problem with How To Train Your Dragon 2 it’s that it’s not quite as sharp or as streamlined as the original. The dragon races are visually striking but completely immaterial to the story, as is newcomer Eret, who makes no impression at all (on anyone, that is, but Ruffnut). Furthermore, while the finale might be incredibly strong thematically – there are some particularly powerful parallels to the battle of the Red Death from the first film – it seems a little too hurried to pay off emotionally. This is not the conclusion of the story, however, and it may well be that certain events will continue to cast a shadow over the upcoming third instalment, slated for release in 2016.

For the most part, however, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an unmitigated pleasure from beginning to end. The flying scenes continue to delight, John Powell’s score soars anew and Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless is as endearing as ever. With Pixar not releasing a new film this year the Academy Award for Best Animation must surely be in the bag. This is computer-generated animation at its very best.