Back in 2010, when I knew nothing of the books, I admired the first film for its characterization, the animation, the thematic material: (1) the misfit who fights against the ignorance of those who surround him to find a new way, and (2) the denunciation of empty-headed violence to find the beauty in creatures previously misunderstood. There was a special magic to the story.
It is now 2014, and my children and I have read some of the books (and discovered we liked the film better--a rare thing), and they even dressed as Hiccup and Astrid one Halloween. We were waiting for the sequel (unable to catch the television series), highly expectant to see what lay in store for these characters.
Happily, I report this second film is a wonderful expansion of the first, an exploration of new territory, symbolized by Hiccup's own expanding map (pages stuck together with dragon spit). This sequel repeats and develops the two major themes of the first: (1) Hiccup still does not seem to fit his father's expectations, and (2) there is a hoard of new characters, led by a new villain, who view dragons solely as a threat to be exterminated.
If you saw just one of the many broadcasts of the preview for the film, then the big secret has already been spoiled. I wish there had been mystery when the masked figure appeared, but the preview gave us the reveal as well as the poignant reunion line (which still had power).
My favorite part of the film was Hiccup's quest to find "another way" of approaching the invading aggression of Drago. His choices eventually lead to a confrontation and a sacrificial death on the part of another character. My kids said the character didn't need to die (scolding the author-director), but the death didn't surprise me, since the first film emphasized that conflict leaves scars (Toothless lost his tail fin, and Hiccup lost his foot). Because the scale of this story was larger, so was the sacrifice.
The tough part to see is the bending of Toothless' will. He becomes the villain's pawn in this terrible act. That is heavy material for such an animated movie; it is handled well, but a little too briefly.
I have two complaints: (1) I wish there had been less of the supporting characters (especially Ruffnut's obsession with Eret's muscles), and I wish there had been more development of Astrid's character (we would have sat through a solid two hours!).
Was this film better than the first? It depends on your tastes. The first broke new ground and told a tale on a more intimate level, isolating the story to Berk. This sequel opened up the world and told a bigger, bolder, more heart-wrenching tale, but it wouldn't have happened without the investment in the first. I enjoyed both and look forward to other adventures (and Hiccup gadgets) that may come!