It’s easy to take for granted the familiar pleasures of a good animated movie. But it’s useful to consider how something like How to Train Your Dragon 2 makes magic. Dragons breathe ice and fire that look equally minty. The flight here doesn’t feel simulated; even in the plain-old 2-D version, the cliff dives and cloud-surfing feel chest-clutchingly real. Then there is the unexpected pleasure of the voices of Cate Blanchett and Gerard Butler. How their scenes were recorded is unclear. But when his massive, burly viking (Stoick the Vast) and her petite preservationist share a dance, her touch and tremulous singing transform the gravitational properties of his boulder of a body. She makes Butler necessary.
The entire film is a romance — visually, parentally, ecologically. It’s got the emotional, humorous, exciting sweep you want from a summer movie. The original, which hails from the first of Cressida Cowell’s dozen How To … children’s books, was released four years ago. That is apparently enough time for stunning progress in digital animation technology. How to Train Your Dragon’s swashbuckling lessons of taming and tolerance were accompanied by stiffness. The motion was navigable but it lacked the trademark richness and eloquence that is Pixar’s stock in trade. The colors were bright, but they weren’t veering on the three-dimensional. The writer and director, Dean DeBlois, wrote a strong enough story for a more-than-serviceable cartoon. The sequel, which DeBlois also helmed, is beautiful. The human motion is almost more graceful than the dragons’, and the dragons could dance for Alvin Ailey. The half-movements, the sauntering and shrugging and throwing up of arms: It’s better than lifelike.
The protagonist is still the skinny, peg-legged viking Hiccup Horrendous Haddock (Jay Baruchel), who, having persuaded his larger, more bellicose brethren to live with dragons, now must face the possibility of leadership. His father, Stoick, wants him to be chief someday. In the meantime, a caped, dreadlocked hunter called Drago (Djimon Hounsou) is looking to capture dragons for his world-conquering war. Hiccup; his dragon, Toothless; and their friends (America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig) first meet a brute named Eret (Kit Harington) trapping dragons for the hunter. Then Hiccup encounters Valka (Blanchett), a socially maladroit woman with Glenn Close’s bone structure and Dian Fossey’s ponytail. She keeps a magnificent dragon preserve where the centerpiece is a giant tusked creature from the aptly named bewilderbeast species. Obviously, Valka’s spread would be of great interest to Drago.
You think Godzilla is impressive (and this latest incarnation of Godzilla is impressive), but then you see one or two of these bewilderbeasts and you wonder why reptiles from Aliens remain the benchmark for scary or classically awesome. To open an old National Geographic was to be reminded that there’s enough in the animal kingdom to freak you out. Hiccup’s trusty Toothless, for instance, has the eyes and pelt of a panther and a salamander’s length and flatness. A lot of these creatures would be at home in Star Wars and Avatar, but the Dragon 2 filmmakers luxuriate in scale. There’s big, and then there are the animals in this movie. Some of them do harm.
Drago gets his great war. Characters die. Dragons’ personalities change. The thematic notions of control and obeisance, of alpha-ness, invite darkness that DeBlois doesn’t stint on. One dragon falls under a spell that makes it do horrible things. Some children will dislike this. But it’s the sort of bad news that provides a springboard for the resilience that makes these sorts of stories go. This, too, is very Star Wars. I didn’t like Luke Skywalker’s losing a hand, either. Children get it, though: Loss is also part of the romance.