Franchises are the engine driving the movie business. If you latch onto one that sticks, you’re set. You don’t tempt fate by pushing too hard in directions where your audience may not want to go. But nobody told writer-director Dean DeBlois this. (Full disclosure: I know this guy, but this film is so good it momentarily made me wish I didn’t so that my praise would read as more genuine.)

Or maybe someone did tell him and DeBlois (co-director of Lilo & Stitch and the first Dragon) ignored them. I kind of hope that’s what happened.

We return to the kingdom of the Vikings and the Dragons, the one where young misfit Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel) has not only befriended and trained the fire-breather named Toothless, but successfully earned the respect of his community and resolved the endless war between humans and dragons. They’re domesticated creatures now, eager puppies who want nothing more than to fly and have their chins scratched.

It turns out, though, that there are other humans who’ve learned to fly dragons and they’re a little less Free To Be You and Me about, well, everything. Power, control and dominance are what they seek and they’ll go to war to get it.

That path to war, the one that seems to dominate animated features lately, is now the lazy screenplay’s way out. Conflict arises, enemies threaten the lives or well-being of the heroes, third act battle takes place, evil is vanquished. That these films are marketed directly to children and that they reflexively condone violent conflict as a solution is troubling for any thinking person. And HTTYD2 could have lock-stepped its way down that road. That it refuses to do so is the kind of dare that shouldn’t even be a dare.

That’s about as much plot detail as I want to give here, but the rest of the action – and there’s plenty – involves magnificent flying sequences (and an exciting use of 3D, full of depth and detail), unexpected life or death situations, equally unexpected and deepening emotional complexity, the arrival of Hiccup’s mother (Cate Blanchett) who had previously exiled herself for complicated reasons, and more than a few nods to themes seen in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, ideas about the way human beings involve themselves with the natural world and creative, thoughtful conflict resolution, especially the assertion that waging peace can be every bit as heroic and satisfying as waging war.

If I just made it sound too difficult for your kids, it’s not. They’ll get it, and as they watch it again later in life they'll get more. It's the kind of film to love and keep loving without guilt as adulthood comes to pass. And it never forgets the childlike qualities that were so involving the first time around. Toothless remains a Stitch-adjacent wellspring of adorability and his moving, intensely bonded relationship with Hiccup is the meat and potatoes of this series. The joy of flying your own pet dragon creates the sturdy foundation for a story about to live a good, grounded life.

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