How to Train Your Dragon 2: riveting, moving and beautifully animated.How to Train Your Dragon 2: riveting, moving and beautifully animated.

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.)

Un château en Italie
Release Date: 4 July
Director: Valeria
Starring: Valeria
Bruni-Tedeschi, Louis Garrel

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Release Date: 4 July
Director: Dean DeBlois
Feat. the voices of: Jay Baruchel,
Kristen Wiig

Begin Again (K7)
Release Date: 4 July
Director: John Carney
Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark

Drug War (K16)
Release Date: 4 July
Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei

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.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is brimming with action while remaining mercifully straightforward. The undoing of many a sequel lies in its insistence on introducing multiple enemies to up the ante. There's none of that here. Meanwhile, the movie manages to tackle themes of growing up and finding independence; coming to terms with one's heritage; forgiveness; and how to properly care for a pet. Anyone with a cat, dog, ferret or guinea pig will probably melt when Toothless jumps on Hiccup and doles out some big sloppy kisses.

The movie is also funny. During most conversational scenes, you might notice dragons in the background doing silly things. And one running joke involves the boorish Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) as she pines over Eret, her eyes going googly in slow-mo as she says, "Me likey."

The animation is splendid, whether it's showing the acrobatics of dragon riders or a swirl of flying animals of all shapes, sizes and colors doing laps around the sanctuary. But it's not all pristine. The movie shows, believably, the grime of living in this fantastical rough-and-tumble world. Nearly all the characters are dirty, maimed or both.

Elsewhere on screens

If Once was your thing a few years back, no doubt you’re already looking forward to the latest from same director, John Carney. Begin Again offers the tale of an ambitious young female singer (Keira Knightley) who moves to New York City in search of stardom. Kicked to the curb by her hipster muso boyfriend, she comes into the orbit of Mark Ruffalo’s struggling record producer, who gets things back on track for both of them. Chinese-Hong Kong flick Drug War sees a meth producer seeking to avoid the death penalty by turning informant. Finally, Un château en Italie offers some lukewarmly-received melodrama from Italy and France. JO’S

There are a few moments toward the movie's climax when things slow down just enough to make the little ones restless. (The novelty of 3-D wears off quickly, regardless of age.) But before you know it, the movie picks up the pace again to deliver a solid finale. This may be the first and last time anyone says this, but if How to Train Your Dragon 2 is this good, why stop at 3 and 4?

Stephanie Merry
The Washington Post
Image: (c) 2014. Twentie th Century Fox