There is an unbearably adorable moment at the start of any 3-D children's movie when the first frames hit the screen and the little ones in the audience let out a collective "woooooow" as they reach up to touch the images coming at them. This is, for better or worse, the highlight of some 3-D fare. But in "How to Train Your Dragon 2," that moment is really just an auspicious beginning for a riveting, moving and beautifully animated film.
It's understandable if you approach this sequel with some resignation. You'll take the kids to see it because it's the only option, and the fact that writer-director Dean DeBlois already has plans for a third and possibly fourth installment isn't necessarily heartening — another franchise proving the law of diminishing returns, you might mutter. But the follow-up to the 2010 blockbuster, based on books by Cressida Cowell about a dragon rider and his beloved pet, shows sequel-makers how to do it right.
The movie begins five years after the last one ended. The Celtic island of Berk has become a safe haven and breeding ground for dragons; there's even a basketball-like sport involving dragon riders using sheep to score points. (PETA may not entirely approve of this particular scene, animated or not.)
But while the whole island watches the tourney, self-appointed cartographer Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his pet night fury, Toothless — batlike with Zooey Deschanel-size eyes — are exploring far-flung destinations. Both are still dealing with injuries suffered in the first movie — Hiccup has a metal prosthesis — but that doesn't slow them down.
On one of these adventures, the beanpole of a young man stumbles upon an island made of spiky ice that's home to some unsavory characters. They're dragon hunters led by Eret (Kit Harington), and they spend their days rounding up fire-breathers for a mysterious overlord named Drago, who clearly has sinister intentions. There's hope for taking on Drago, though. Hiccup joins forces with a masked dragon rider whose identity won't be revealed here, except to say that she's voiced by Cate Blanchett and has a real dream job: She's the zookeeper of a massive dragon sanctuary.