Toothless it's not.
In a world of sequels, reboots and franchise industry economics dictating that creativity is encouraged but not required, the DreamWorks Animation offering "How to Train Your Dragon 2" looks, feels and flows like a real movie. It's better than the last few Pixar features, among other things, and from where I sit that includes "Toy Story 3."
In an emotionally resonant key, it's as satisfying as the initial 2010 "Dragon," based very loosely on the Cressida Cowell books. Writer-director Dean DeBlois worked on the first one, and he brought along an army of proven collaborators for the sequel, chiefly production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent and visual consultant Roger Deakins. The latter is one of the finest cinematographers alive, and while his specific input on the rich Viking palette and fiery glory of "Dragon 2" may be ambiguous, it's all to the good.
Here is an animated film wherein the affection between the key players counts, and matters.
Now a young adult, adorkable Viking lad Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, voice) and his intended, Astrid (America Ferrera), live the good life in the remote village of Berk, ruled by Hiccup's benevolent father (Gerard Butler). The once-feared and -reviled dragon community has been successfully integrated into daily life.
Like a catapult, the film launches itself with two aerial sequences, the first a game of what appears to be Quidditch played with dragons and sheep, the second a soaring flight over the ocean and above the clouds for Hiccup and his beloved, inky-black wonder, Toothless, both of whom have retained and refined their shrewdly engineered artificial body parts. Wing for the dragon, lower leg for the human.
There is trouble in paradise: Across the water, the warrior Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou, seething with vicious ambition in every line reading) amasses a dragon army. Hiccup locates the mother he never knew (Cate Blanchett, the simultaneously soothing and unsettling voice of the dragon-rescue coalition) and many things happen from there, including the death of a major character and some exciting scenes of swooping velocity that actually justify the 3-D upcharge.
To be clear, "Dragon 2" throws a little something in its narrative for every taste, every separation anxiety, every childhood vulnerability, in a slightly calculating way. In this sequel, however, writer-director DeBlois avoids most every threat of grim "Ice Age"-y wisecracking. This is a coming-of-age story, and the film rewards our investment in it. Toothless is the most inspired creature in the DreamWorks animation canon, endearing and fearsome in the right mixture, and when a cruel plot development brings in a couple of mountain-size "alpha" dragons for battle, our winged hero becomes a pawn in the clash. (Not easy to watch, especially for the 4- to 7-year-olds sitting around me.)
But it's not all grief and loss. Early on, there's a scene with Hiccup and Astrid in which she's gently mocking Baruchel's vocal inflections and the character's hunchy body language, and it's beautifully natural — the right kind of comic relief.
Throughout the picture, you're aware of DeBlois' instincts clicking both as a company man with a third "Dragon" movie in the wings and as an increasingly savvy popular artist. But for once, we have an animated sequel free of the committee-job vibe so common at every animation house, no matter the track record. We've had worthy commodities stomping through the popcorn in recent weeks, "Godzilla" among them, but "Dragon 2," for now, is the one to beat.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for adventure action and some mild rude humor)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: Thursday evening