The charms of "How to Train Your Dragon" are thinned a bit for its sequel, a cartoon with better animation and livelier action, if fewer jokes. And if there's one thing these sweet-message/great flying sequence movies don't need, it's fewer jokes.
The misfit, inventive and now one-legged Viking teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet Night Fury dragon, Toothless, are living with other Vikings and other dragons in utter harmony on the island of Berk. Their days are taken up with Dragon Racing, a chase game that's reminiscent of Hogwarts' sport, Quiddich, with catapulted sheep as the ball to be battled over.
"No sheep, no glory!"
Hiccup's dad, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), still has the kid's ascent to the chiefdom of Berk in mind. But Hiccup would rather ride like the wind with Toothless.
Hiccup and his peers (America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse do some of their voices) are venturing far afield, exploring lands to the west. That's where they stumble into The Dragon Thief and rumors of an army of Vikings mounted on dragons led by the malevolent Drago, "a madman without conscience or pity."
Hiccup, an optimist and, against all odds, a Viking pacifist, wants to fix that. "Let's go find him and change his mind!"
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is about that quest. Kit Harrington, Cate Blanchett and Djimon Hounsou voice new characters that the Berk kids stumble into. First the younger Berks, then the adults tangle with these new faces, with their different dragons and their differing dragon agendas.
The original "Dragon" broke from the DreamWorks formula as a film not overly reliant on one-liners and verbal comedy. That's even more true about the sequel, in which writer-director Dean DeBlois, no longer sharing those duties with his "Lilo & Stitch" teammate Chris Sanders, ignores the bevy of potentially funny voices and focuses on physical shtick. The first was all about the "respect the differently-abled" message. But even that message is watered down here.
But Berk, now dragon friendly, has its own dragon (cat) lady. There are scads of giggle-worthy sight gags involving pet dragons imitating puppy behavior -- manic games of fetch, bellies being rubbed and the like. Awww.
New dragons mean new menaces and new lessons for Hiccup to learn in his journey to manhood -- "A chief protects his own." And a second film meant a chance to up the ante with the animation, with dragons frolicking like seagulls in the seaside updrafts. These 3-D films have sequences that play like a prospectus for a theme-park ride.
But the whole franchise -- yes, "How to Train Your Dragon 3" is already in the works -- while still airborne, is already a bit winded, and only getting more so.
'how to Train your Dragon 2'
* * ½
Rating: PG (for adventure action and some mild rude humor)
Cast: Voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill
Director and screenwriter: Dean DeBlois
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes