Children's movies don't really have to work very hard for their target audience, but of course, they're better when they do. A good children's film doesn't talk down to kids and thereby tells a story that's both palatable to adults and training wheels for kids to move on to yet more challenging fare at the movies. The animated adventure How to Train Your Dragon 2 fits this bill: while it may be childish entertainment for adults (especially targeting Game of Thrones fans), it's thematically adult-minded for a kids' movie.
Five years have passed on screen since the events of 2010's How to Train Your Dragon, in which inventive fifteen-year-old Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) waged peace between his Viking village of Berk and dragonkind, as represented by bloodied but unbowed animal Toothless. Hiccup and Toothless are still joined at the hip, practicing new flying stunts as they explore and map outlying regions. Hiccup still faces pressure from dad Stoick (Gerard Butler), but of a more benign variety: Stoick lovingly wishes to pave the path of succession for his son to become chief. Hiccup isn't so sure he wants the job, but even as that question is postponed by trouble, the trouble will again test Hiccup's capacity for (unconventional) leadership.
That trouble arrives in the form of dragon trappers who don't share Berk's enlightened view of living in harmony with the fire-breathers. Pompous, all-bark-no-bite Eret (Desmond Harrington of Game of Thrones) turns out to be merely a lackey to the fearsome Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who has history with Stoick. The bigger shock comes when Hiccup discovers a hidden dragon sanctuary caretaken by someone who has even more significant history with Hiccup's family: the guarded Valka (Cate Blanchett). Hiccup again casts himself in the role of peacemaker, now protecting a hard-earned new way of life, but can war be averted if people won't come to terms?
That's a troubling question for a kids' movie, which would ordinarily simply embrace peace or embrace war. Stoick avers, "Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with," but a subtler point about powerful weapons (from guns to trained soldiers following orders) comes out when someone notes, "Good dragons, under the control of bad people, do bad things." The series remains focused, too, on Hiccup's development. Despite the presence of lots of supporting characters—including America Ferrera's tough, smart Astrid—this remains a coming-of-age story, with this chapter focused on earning leadership and loyalty through earnest self-improvement. Of living up to Dad, Hiccup muses, "How do you become someone that great, that brave, that selfless? I guess you can only try."
All that aside, DreamWorks Animation ups the ante visually (under the sharp direction of Dean DeBlois, who also scripted). The flight scenes are truly wondrous, especially the quieter ones—though scenes of dragon races and high-flying battle are certainly spectacular. The character acting has also leapt and bound over the uncanny valley, helping this sequel to be surprisingly emotional. While delivering the epic goods, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise continues to keep its eye on helping kids become better people, and that's a cause worth fighting for.