If anything held back 2010's How To Train Your Dragon it was playing things a little too safe. That is, until an ending that ranks among the most shocking in family film history.
For its sequel, director Dean DeBlois wants to continue along the path set by that ending. This isn't a traditional animated film, this is closer to 12A than U and plays to an older audience of pre and early teens.
Rather than darker in a groan-inducing sense, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is darker in that it's a more grown up film with more mature themes. It's still fun for all the family of course, but it has rougher edges to complement its spectacular visuals.
Picking up five years after the original, the theme of growing up is made clear the second you see the first film's young heroes taller, more mature (sort of) and in the case of the boys adorned with attempts at facial hair almost as valiant as their heroics.
Change is everywhere. The opening shot and voice over are near identical to that of the original but with all the changes brought about by that film made clear. The clifftop village of Berk is now a safe-haven for dragons, who live and working with the Vikings in harmony.
That all soon changes of course when Hiccup (Jay Barushel) and his dragon Toothless learn of an imminent threat posed by Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) and his growing dragon army. Young, naïve and idealistic, Hiccup endeavours to talk things out with the maniac, but whereas most films would prove their hero right – How To Train Your Dragon 2 teaches harsher lessons to its audience.
Before signing up for the sequel, DeBlois wanted assurances from Dreamworks that a third film would also be made. With this deal secure he set about planning an arc with a clearly defined ending, making this middle portion of that trilogy its Empire Strikes Back moment.
That's no cheap comparison either, but the citing of an influence DeBlois has been open about. It shows too. Few would dare emulate the great Star Wars sequel, but even fewer could succeed like DeBlois has.
That said, it's not quite a perfect film. The final act is a little muddled in its pacing and a handful of scenes with the supporting cast are robbed of just the few extra seconds needed to allow its bounty of gags to breathe. Another problem stems from newcomer Cate Blanchett's character Valka, who for three quarters of the film is a wonderful addition but who is sidelined during the final act.
I also thought the faces of the human cast were over-animated. Whereas the speech-free dragons need hyperactive faces to emote, the humans don't quite need as many little ticks and movements. It's a strange problem to have with the film, but certainly a minor one.
Other than that the animation is predictably gorgeous. The relative merits of Pixar and Dreamworks can be debated, but in terms of animation there really is nothing between them. It works particularly well with the dragons, who are imbued with the characteristics of cats and dogs to make them instantly charming.
Dragons aren't tools of the Vikings or mere steeds to their shining knights, these are characters every bit as important as the humans. That doesn't just apply to poster-boy Toothless either, every one of them has personality, and that extends to the supporting human cast as well.
Of course with so many returning faces – Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (TJ Miller), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) – they're not all going to get a lot of screen time. What time they do get however is spread fairly evenly.
Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid may not be given much to do, but she's never relegated to mere damsel in distress. An early scene beautifully depicts their relationship, not in overt declarations of love but in chemistry and little intimate moments. It helps further establish how much Hiccup and the world around him have grown.
Meanwhile the others are typical of their age. Snotlout and Fighlegs are clamouring for the affections of Ruffnut, while she pines for Kit Harrington's muscly dragon-trapper Eret. It's the barest of sub-plots, but it contains some of the film's biggest laughs.
How To Train Your Dragon 2's stunning visuals (aided once again by cinematographer Roger Deakins) represents the canvas on which a story of increasingly epic scale plays out. Full of heart and soul, there's personality in every major and minor character and locale – with the love of the filmmakers permeating through every one of their creations just as the love the characters share for each other makes you care for every one of them.
In the pantheon of computer animated series How to Train Your Dragon doesn't quite match the heights of Pixar's Toy Story, but it is still a series which deserves just as much love and warrants just as much praise. How To Train Your Dragon 3 cannot come soon enough.