The most wondrous and resonant moments of DreamWorks’s 2010 animated surprise “How to Train Your Dragon” had less to do with the writing than with the rendering. There seemed to be little dialogue in scenes of young, nasally Viking misfit Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) bonding with the mythical creature he’d wounded but couldn’t bear to kill, and eventually soaring through the skies with him. “How to Train Your Dragon 2” recaptures those lyrical highs. But returning writer-director Dean DeBlois also aims to layer on more poignancy for Baruchel and his castmates to play. At points, we’re left feeling a little detached.
A frenetic, Quidditch-like dragon-racing opener reminds us of the attitude adjustment that Hiccup brought to Berk, his harsh island home, with his exploits of a few years back. The Vikings have warmed up to their former community scourge, and now realize how perfect dragons are for stoking the hearth and going really, really fast. No need to tell Hiccup, whose happy place is still with his exotic winged pal, Toothless, touching the clouds and skimming the ocean’s surface. Our hero has even applied his gadget-cobbling skills to make himself motocross-cool flight armor complete with glider wings. More than ever, these magical 3-D visuals feel like a Blue Angels routine customized for the Tolkien crowd.
Of course, Hiccup has to come down sometime. One fresh bit of angst comes courtesy of his stouthearted father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), who proudly anticipates passing him the chieftain’s mantle. Hiccup may have proven himself as a Viking, but he’s not sure he’s cut out to be the Viking. They’ve also got very different ideas about facing a dragon army being gathered by seafaring madman Drago (Djimon Hounsou, voicing what looks like a genetic splice of Gene Simmons and Bob Marley). Stoick readies for battle, but Hiccup surrenders himself in a diplomacy bid — and a shakily scripted bit of motivation.
Hiccup’s leadership trials are further narratively muddled when he bounces from Drago’s brig into the hands of a masked Dragon Rider — already outed in the movie’s trailer — who turns out to be Hiccup’s long-lost mom, Valka (Cate Blanchett), caretaker of a dazzling, icy dragon sanctuary. (Speaking of outings, disregard the wee bit of hype about Craig Ferguson’s goofy blacksmith, Gobber, announcing that he’s gay — the reveal amounts to a throwaway that gets stepped on by other lines.) DeBlois works hard to lend engaging sentimentality to the mother-child reunion, even enlisting Shane MacGowan to supply music when Stoick and Valka joyfully break into song. But it all feels a bit tangential.
DeBlois has talked about wanting this to be his “Empire Strikes Back,” the second part of a trilogy. We get it: young guy destined to lead has his doubts, and retreats to a strange hideaway while doing some heroic maturation. But a key to that template is focused, elegantly handled motivation. “Empire” had it, and the first “Dragon” had it. Without it, nothing in this likable sequel flies quite so high as those aerial shots.