How many dragons are too many? It's a question that apparently never occurred to Dean DeBlois and his How to Train Your Dragon 2 creative team but crossed my mind during their eventually entertaining sequel.
Not just the number of creatures but their infinitely schoolboy doodle designs: two wings, four wings, spotted, striped, horned, fanged, whatever. Nearly all appear to be the last of their species because so few two are alike. Most can fly, a 3-D talent DeBlois wears thin before settling into a story that startles with its seriousness.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 is how to make a sequel, when it gets its head out of the clouds.
Set five years after the first movie's truce between Vikings and dragons, the cultures live harmoniously in Berk, "a wet heap of rock," according to our restless hero Hiccup (again nasally voiced by Jay Baruchel), his faithful dragon Toothless always ready to soar. His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), learns that dragon hunters are collecting an army for his old enemy Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who already has on his side the ginormous Bewilderbeast, an alpha dragon able to control all others.
Hiccup believes he can avert war by reasoning with Drago, the quest leading to a dragon sanctuary overseen by Valka (Cate Blanchett). Her identity, backstory and purpose gives this movie the sort of unique emotional subtext that made the first Dragon tale special, with its unexpected lessons in handi-capability.
Valka's twist and consequences, which won't be spoiled here, is only one example of DeBlois' willingness to buck against 'toon conventions. There is a death in How to Train Your Dragon 2, and as soon as it happened a conditioned response taught by countless other animated films kicked in, making me wonder how long until the corpse would miraculously open its eyes. It doesn't happen, and that's a bold, honest decision for what is essentially a kid flick.
Even the method of that character's death, and at whose hand, challenge perceptions of animated heroes, and our comfort level with seeing them corrupted. The tragedy of the result is compounded by the cause DeBlois dares to allow.
Surrounding this savvy drama (and so-so comic relief) is DeBlois' gorgeously designed Viking world of forbidding dank caverns, mountain ranges and choppy seas. The dragon sanctuary sequence alone is suitable for framing, as lovely and eco-intensive as any dreamscape by acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.
There's so much ambition to How to Train Your Dragon 2 that overlooking its occasional stumbles into the usual — a Quidditch rip-off, sidekick pratfalls — is a bit easier to manage. Sometimes ambition fails, like employing a Celtic ballad for a flat musical intrusion on what had been a soundly dramatic scene. You may not like something about How to Train Your Dragon 2, but you're not likely to see it anywhere else.
In the end, it isn't how many dragons DeBlois crams into his movie that's important. It's how many figurative dragons, breathing sameness into animation, that he'll continue to slay.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.