The violence in "How to Train Your Dragon 2" may be computer-animated and blood-free, but its consequences feel very real. The story's heroes, the young Viking Hiccup and his coal-black dragon, Toothless, still bear physical scars from the first film (2010). The human who threatens them here is also maimed, and it's his refusal to heal that makes him a villain. What's more, not everyone in this story survives.
Gruesome? A little. Scary? You bet. But that's exactly what makes the "Dragon" films so different, and so much better, than the average children's fare.
Franchises such as "Percy Jackson" and last year's hopeful pilot "The Mortal Instruments" have been battling for the now-empty throne of "Harry Potter," but the "Dragon" series is looking like the worthiest heir. Its world is filled with whimsical dragons and the colorful villagers of Berk, including Hiccup's blustering father, Stoick (voice of Gerard Butler), the avuncular Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and rowdy youths like Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig). But the "Dragon" movies, based on Cressida Cowell's novels, are also not afraid to get serious.
In "Dragon 2," the characters have aged five years. Hiccup (voiced by an appealing Jay Baruchel) is growing a pubescent one o'clock shadow, while his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), is more comfortable with casual public displays of affections. But Hiccup isn't the only human with a gift for dragon-whispering. One is Valka, a shamanic character added by writer-director Dean DeBlois and voiced by Cate Blanchett. The other is Drago Bludvist (a roaringly good Djimon Hounsou), who rules his dragon army through fear.
Like any sequel, "Dragon 2" repeats its predecessor's beats, and one new addition -- a Quidditch-style game involving live sheep -- feels derivative. But it's all deftly handled and often beautifully animated. The emotional middle act may overwhelm very young viewers, but as storytellers from Walt Disney to George Lucas have known, it's the darker moments that make the story matter.
PLOT The Vikings of Berk discover they're not the only ones with dragons at their command.
RATING PG (sequences of intense action, some scary images, and brief rude humor)
CAST Voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, America Ferrera
BOTTOM LINE The "Dragon" franchise is becoming a worthy heir to the "Potter" throne: a fantasy story anchored in real emotions.