Where does a franchise called "How to Train Your Dragon" go after said dragon is already trained? The second installment in the DreamWorks Animation series, written and directed by Dean DeBlois and featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel and Cate Blanchett, responds to that conundrum with an expanded scope and even snazzier visuals.
According to film critics, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" hits a few rough spots, but largely flies high.
The Associated Press' Jocelyn Noveck wrote that moviegoers will be "happily surprised at the new twists ['Dragon 2'] takes -- sort of like getting an unexpected second candy bar in the vending machine. 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' doesn't play it safe, and that's why it's the rare sequel that doesn't feel somewhat stale."
In addition to offering "visual delights," she said, the movie "travels into darker areas than its predecessor, displaying an admirable maturity. Many animated tales involve dashing acts of bravery, but rarely do they show the possible tragic consequences of such acts."
The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek said that in some ways, "Dragon 2" is "inferior" to its predecessor: "The plot is needlessly busy, and much of the action is more manic and indistinct. But 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' cuts deeper than the first picture ... and there are a few sequences of cartoon grandeur."
She added that "DeBlois keeps the story moving efficiently enough" and delivers "some finely tuned dramatic moments, including a tragic twist that might be too intense for really little kids." Best of all, the movie marks the return of the trusty dragon steed Toothless, "one of the most beautifully designed characters in modern animation, perhaps in all of animation, period."
Entertainment Weekly's Joe McGovern similarly wrote, "While the original movie benefited from narrative simplicity and an admirable lack of villains, this one paints the screen with too many characters and frequent diversions from the main story, but nevertheless serves up a bountiful and sugary feast for the 3-D-bespectacled eyes."
Djimon Hounsou's bad guy is "the vision of banal cartoon evil," and "the moral takeaway is cut-and-dried this time," he said, but on the plus side, "the movie's visual scope is magnificent" and the "offbeat" score works. In sum, "[t]he flight path needs straightening, but this is still a franchise that knows how to fly."
The New York Post's Lou Lumenick called "Dragon 2" a "worthwhile if not-quite-as-delightful sequel" that "offers some stunningly beautiful sequences and an engaging, if at times quite dark, story line." He adds that "[t]here is some wonderful stuff here," including a love-song duet between Blanchett and Gerard Butler.
"At the risk of being branded a heretic," Lumenick continued, "I found their unpolished singing preferable to the Broadway belting in 'Frozen' -- and, as a coming-of-age story, 'Dragon 2' is a lot fresher and more inventive than Pixar's thematically similar 'Brave.'"
Variety's Peter Debruge likewise found "Dragon 2" superior to those two movies. He wrote, "Braver than 'Brave,' more fun than 'Frozen' and more emotionally satisfying than so many of its live-action counterparts, 'Dragon' delivers."
He added, "If necessity is the mother of invention, then DreamWorks' desire to extend the 'Dragon' franchise has propelled the creative team in the most admirable of directions, resulting in what just may be the mother of all animated sequels."