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Movie Review: ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ is bigger, still has heart

A boy and his dragon:
A boy and his dragon: "How to Train Your Dragon 2."

‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’
★★★

The first “How to Train Your Dragon” was an unusually small-scale affair, dramatically. So it was predictable that Dreamworks Animation would go big and mind-bogglingly spectacular for the sequel to its surprise half-billion-dollar hit.

And they have, expanding the story to include faraway lands, a full-fledged war and countless kinds of dragons. Fortunately, they haven’t sacrificed the emotional oomph that made the original memorable.

After four years, geeky Viking boy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, whose downcast, irony-drenched voice seems a bit out of place now), has grown to self-assured young manhood, adapting to the leg he lost in the original. He’s still a bit of a loner, preferring exploring new territory with his pet dragon Toothless to participating in quidditch-like dragon races with his peers.

His father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) wants Hiccup to become chief one day, like him, but the Hiccup prefers to invent gadgets like his home-made flying suit and the adventures of exploring new lands. (Perhaps he understandably dreads being referred to as Chief Hiccup.)

Hiccup is on one of those explorations with his pet dragon Toothless (also severely injured in part one) and Astrid (America Ferrera), his tomboyish now-girlfriend, when they learn large-scale trouble is brewing.

In part one, he taught his father and the villagers of Berk that they can exist harmoniously with dragons. But that’s not the opinion of dragon-trapper Eret (Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones”), who has been capturing them for the dragon army of the evil Drago Bloodfist (Djimon Hounsou) who’s nurturing the usual plans for world domination.

Hiccup also learns of the existence of the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett), another dragon-sympathizer has protects thousands in a sanctuary and is prepared to join Hiccup, Stoick and the warriors of Berk in all-out war with Drago.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that “Train Your Dragon 2” defaults to a typical battling-a-bad-guy plot after the original’s struggle against ignorance and prejudice, but it’s hard to imagine where else the story might have gone. At least writer/director Dean DeBlois (who co-wrote and co-directed part one) has maintained the original’s commitment to dramatic substance and its comparative serious-mindedness.

There are plenty of humorous touches here (notably featuring Kristen Wiig as a Viking teen with the hots for Eret), but this is not the sort of story that ends happily for everyone without pain or sacrifice. The PG-rated violence is bloodless, but the war does have consequences here that could be upsetting for small children.

One more major virtue has been carried over from the original: the pure thrill and beauty of flight. The most vivid moments in “Train Your Dragon 2” generally take place in mid-air. The flashiest of those scenes involves Hiccup and Valka (with whom our hero has an unexpected connection) impressing each other with their dragon-master skills.

But DeBlois also takes time on a couple of occasions to let Hiccup luxuriate in his ability to soar through the clouds with his fire-breathing friend. It’s enough to make all non-flying pets look pathetic.

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