‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ moves story ahead smartly

The first “How to Train Your Dragon” movie was a neat surprise, a funny and spirited fantasy with a crazy setting. It also made a bundle in 2010 — so it’s time for a sequel.

Say this for “How to Train Your Dragon 2”: It’s not as good as the first one, but they certainly didn’t just mimic the original movie. We take off in a whole different direction here.

For one thing, the characters have actually aged. The adolescent heroes from the first film are now 20 years old, and facing different sorts of challenges.

Our main character is still Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the nerdy son of a great Viking leader (Gerard Butler). Hiccup discovered how to live in peace with dragons, and now he and his dragon pal are busy exploring the uncharted northern lands of this primitive era.

This leads to a great war, between the Vikings and a band of renegade dragon-exploiters. Equally significant is Hiccup’s encounter with a mysterious dragon-keeper (Cate Blanchett); she’s got a vast menagerie of flying dragons under her care.

The sequel is written and directed by Dean DeBlois, returning from the first film. As before, this film finds a smart balance between action scenes, slapstick, and quiet moments.

It has a martial tone that steers it away from the loose humor of the original film and closer to the warfare of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. That might be an acquired taste, and I missed some of the zany jokes from part one.

Hiccup’s sidekicks are back to provide a few gags. I still don’t understand the value of hiring big-name actors (Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill) when they only have a few lines of dialogue, but whatever.

The 3-D effects are imaginative, yet they don’t drive the movie. What’s really impressive on a technical level is how nuanced the facial expressions and body language are. These animated films keep advancing more every year, and this one’s astonishing in its visual detail.

DeBlois has said that “Dragon 3” is already in the works, and that the overall idea is to portray a real hero’s journey across the three movies. That explains why this installment is considerably more grown-up, with a handful of emotional moments that complicate the cartoon landscape.

Still: Lots of flying dragons here. No worries on that score. And there’s enough excitement generated to justify another sequel.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” (3 stars)

Sequel to the 2010 animated hit, in which the characters have actually aged—the adolescents form the first film are now 20 years old. Lots of battle in this story, but plenty of fun dragons too, and the quality of the animation is truly astounding.

Rating: PG, for subject matter

Showing: , Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Olympic Theater, Stanwood Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium 14, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-In, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza.

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