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How to Train Your Dragon 2 ***1/2

Is it worth $15 (3D)? Yes

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” takes the success of its hit 2010 predecessor and catapults forward with a smart story, lively visuals (see it in 3D!) and a solid message at its core. If only more sequels were this ambitious in expanding their universe.

The animated movie doesn’t ignore the happy ending of “How to Train Your Dragon” so much as it acknowledges that as life goes on, new obstacles need to be overcome. Five years after the events of “Dragon,” all is great in the Viking town of Berk. Humans and dragons peacefully co-exist, Chief Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler) is ready to retire, and his buddy Gobber (Craig Ferguson) is as loyal as ever. 

Perhaps no one is enjoying kinship with the dragons more than the teenagers, who as the film opens are in the midst of a fierce game of dragon racing (ride your dragon, collect sheep, duo with the most points wins – it does sound like fun). But while Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) have fun, conspicuously absent is our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who’s out with his dragon Toothless exploring new lands and creating a map of his world.

On one adventure he runs into a dragon trapper named Eret (Kit Harrington), who works for Drago (Djimon Hounsou), a hunter who claims to be able to control dragons. Hiccup also meets a woman named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who shows him a brand new world of dragons in a beatific, “Avatar”-esque setting that is visually stunning. As Drago works his way closer to this new world and Berk, Hiccup must once again come of age and master new enemies, alpha dragons and his own fears.

Keeping this child-friendly are the adorable dragons. This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or “Maleficent”: These dragons were designed to act like cats and dogs, which allows us to relate to them as pets. When Hiccup lands on Eret’s boat, Eret tries to be intimidating by throwing Hiccup’s weapon overboard. Little does Eret know that Astrid’s dragon Stormfly will “fetch” and return it, and when he does the smile on your face is a delightful reminder that you’re enjoying everything you’re watching.

The first film was co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, but with Sanders bowing out to make “The Croods” (2013) DeBlois was left to his own devices. Turns out that’s a good thing, as the story is well conceived and structured, and includes a good amount of foreshadowing for those who pay close attention. DeBlois said he was inspired by “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) when planning the widening scope of the story, and the influences are obvious (though it’s not nearly as dark as “Empire”).

Although the humor, story and characters provide the heart, the flying sequences and aerial battles provide the “wow.” Swooping up, down, sideways and through things but never with a dizzying effect, the visuals grab our attention in the opening moments and never let go. The design of the dragons is appropriately creative and varied, as is the production design of Berk and the different worlds. The makers of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” clearly looked at what they did right the first time and said, “Okay, how can we be even better?” and succeeded in every way.

Did you know?

DeBlois agreed to return for “Dragon 2” only on the condition that DreamWorks Animation allow him to make a trilogy. Accordingly, “How to Train Your Dragon 3” is scheduled for release June 17, 2016.

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