Things are very different in the village of Berk, thanks to Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon, Toothless. Dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony while the young dragon riders, including Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), protect the village. However, Hiccup is still unsure he really wants to succeed his father, Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) as Viking Chief. While out on patrol the dragon riders encounter a group of dragon hunters preparing for an invasion fronted by the formidable Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a warrior able to bend dragons to his will. In attempting to stop Drago's evil plans, our heroes inadvertently stumble upon a secret haven for dragons safeguarded by someone Hiccup believed dead, his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett).
Few films divided critics and audiences in 2014 quite like How to Train Your Dragon 2. For some the sequel was nothing less than a masterpiece, a quantum leap for animation and unjustly denied an Oscar. Others found it slick but shallow, a cynical attempt to expand the well-crafted original into another lucrative young adult fantasy franchise. Certainly on a dramatic level the film takes some bold steps towards crafting a darker and more complex story, signposted perhaps by the addition of Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington. His character, a young dragon hunter named Eret, proved neither hero nor villain but a hybrid of the two encapsulating the central theme: are people capable of change? Hiccup certainly believes so and cites Toothless as an example yet the plot challenges his convictions relentlessly.
In theory testing a hero's values should be the source of great drama. And for the bulk of the film it actually is, with Hiccup torn between conflicting points of view embodied by his father and mother (Cate Blanchett playing a strange feral character with a bizarrely undefined accent) and also chief villain Drago. Skilfully scripted by director Dean DeBlois, although it looks as if each character is approaching the key question from a different angle they actually all tell Hiccup the same thing, which is it's pointless to try to reason with someone with a conflicting point of view. All one can do is protect your own values and way of life. Where the film grows problematic is when it attempts to reinforce Hiccup's idealism whilst ambiguously endorsing Stoic and Valka's belief the best thing one can do is "look after your own."
Between films there was the television series Dragon Riders of Berk. DeBlois develops several plot points from the show likely to confuse anyone that has not been keeping up. Presumably taking a cue from the Harry Potter movies the filmmakers chose to have their characters grow up with their audience. Hence the now twenty year old Hiccup is a broodier hero, more impulsive and a little less considerate. The characters are less goofy and more earnest. It is a tonal shift liable to alienate as many young viewers as it entices. Certainly the publicity campaign's attempt to mould Hiccup into the first computer-animated heart-throb did not quite come off. One casualty of this new mature direction is the conspicuous lack of humour. By this point supporting voicer actors Kristen Wiig and Jonah Hill are bigger stars than leads Jay Baruchel or America Ferrara but the film gives them little to work with and what gags there are simply aren't that funny.
On a technical level the animation is even more stunning than before. Celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins' input as visual consultant is well apparent in such jaw dropping sequences as the dragon P.O.V. shots over the battlefield, the gigantic Alpha Dragon bursting forth from its crystal cave and the epic clash between behemoths. If the film is at times overly solemn it pulls off some magnificently moving moments that showcase the sophistication of the animated medium, notably Stoic's amazement upon seeing the wife he thought was dead. For mainstream family fare the film deserves praise for deciding to go to a very dark place forcing Hiccup to question his entire outlook on life and, yes, dragons. Ultimately the sequel does succeed in deepening the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, putting the case for nurture over nature.