Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

***

The inevitable sequel to the 2010 smash, How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be a bright and cheerful toon flick for the whole family, but it also isn't afraid to occasionally saunter over to the dark side. How dark? Let's just say that there's a late-breaking development here that will result in some moviegoers tagging it as this film's Vader-flavored "I am your father" moment.

I'm not referring to the more obvious parallel that the mother of our young protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is still alive; while that might qualify as a spoiler of sorts, it's already been widely reported in print and online, so hopefully I'm not ruining anything for anyone. No, I'm referring to a grim twist that just might lead to ample weeping from audience members who didn't completely empty their tear ducts during The Fault in Our Stars. It's a powerful moment, and it's a reminder that the best animated features have the ability to fully engage our senses as well as any live-action endeavor.

The original film centered on the sensitive viking Hiccup and the dragon Toothless, and how their relationship eventually put an end to the long-running feud between man and beast. As this new picture opens, we see that everyone in the village of Berk has at least one dragon as a pet. But while life in Berk is idyllic, there's trouble brewing in the surrounding area, as a brute named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) has been ordering his minions to round up as many dragons as possible. Hiccup figures that he should attempt to reason with Drago, but Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup's father and the viking chief, knows that there's no use in talking to such a madman. Nevertheless, Hiccup decides he'll give it the old viking try, although his plan gets sidetracked once he unexpectedly reunites with the long-gone mom (Cate Blanchett) he never knew.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 really pops in 3-D, yet the animation is so stunning that those hoping to save some cash won't be cheated if they opt to check it out in one less dimension. Of course, we all knew the animation would be up to snuff; what's more unexpected is the strength of the script by director Dean DeBlois (working from the book series by Cressida Cowell). The character dynamics prove to be as maturely handled as the themes of responsibility and sacrifice, and the film is sometimes so serious that, while Stoick's right-hand man Gobber (Craig Ferguson) continues to provide amusement (and kudos for the thinly veiled Pride aside), the juvenile antics of Hiccup's friends actually manage to interrupt the narrative flow that DeBlois carefully established.

When a kid flick can be criticized for occasionally being too childish, it's clear that here's a film ready, willing and able to connect with adults as effortlessly as it does with the wee ones.

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