DreamWorks Animation breathed magic onto Cannes Friday with a rip-roaring tale of dragons and vikings that had critics all fired up on the 20th anniversary of the Hollywood studio.
Five years after their first, hugely popular adventures, young viking Hiccup was back with his faithful black dragon and fool-hardy friends in "How To Train Your Dragon 2", directed by Canada's Dean Deblois.
The first instalment earned $495 million and two Oscar nominations, and the 3D sequel was enthusiastically received at this year's Cannes Film Festival in an early birthday present for Jeffrey Katzenberg's studio nearly two decades after it saw the day.
"Like his unflappable hero Hiccup, 'How To Train A Dragon 2' writer-director Dean Deblois has prevailed, serving up DreamWorks Animation's strongest sequel yet -- one that breathes fresh fire into the franchise, instead of merely rehashing the original," wrote entertainment-trade magazine Variety.
"And a good thing, too, since DWA desperately needs another toon to cross the half-billion-dollar threshold."
- A Cannes regular -
In visually gripping scenes, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless drag the audience with them on daredevil rides in the sky, five years after the young viking showed his fellow villagers that the dragons they were fighting were actually good, friendly creatures -- uniting both.
One day, one of their adventures leads to a secret ice cave that is home to hundreds of new dragons -- round and tubby, toothy and skinny, they come in all shapes, colours and sizes.
Helped by an unlikely companion, the two find themselves at the heart of a fight for peace, battling evil man Drago Bludvist and a giant mother-of-all-dragons that breathes huge shards of ice instead of fire.
The movie -- presented out-of-competition -- is not DWA's first foray into the Cannes Film Festival.
The studio is a Croisette regular which chose the French Riviera resort to premiere the first two movies about lovable ogre Shrek and "Madagascar 3".
In the sequel, Cate Blanchett lends her voice to new character Valka and "Game of Thrones" star Kit Harington plays hunky bully "Eret, Son of Eret".
Hiccup is voiced by Canadian actor Jay Baruchel, his girlfriend Astrid by America Ferrera and Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou provides baddie Drago's deep vocals.
"My children and I adored the first film, so when Dean ambushed me a few years ago at an awards ceremony, I was intrigued," Blanchett told reporters.
"As an actor, you're used to using your body, your face, everything you can to communicate stuff and when you have to only do it through your voice, and you're doing it in tandem with the most extraordinary state-of-the art animation, it's an intriguing ride."
- '20 years young' -
DWA has become something of an expert in blockbuster animation movies.
In two decades it has produced 28 features including the "Shrek" and "Madagascar" franchises as well as one-offs like 1998's "Prince of Egypt" and "Chicken Run" (2000), which have in all made over $11 billion at the global box office.
But it has also made some missteps -- like last year's "Turbo," which failed to take off as expected at the box office.
Katzenberg, a former Disney executive, has stressed the need for his company to keep diversifying, notably by investing in animated TV series and the Internet, and by conquering the massive Chinese market.
But he told reporters animation was showing no sign of slowing down.
"DreamWorks is 20 years old, and computer animation is 20 years young," he said.
"The first computer animated movie arrived exactly 20 years ago, in 1994, and we are still seeing today an amazing amount of innovation in both the technology, the tools of our artists and our storytellers, as well as the films themselves.
"I don't see that maturing or stopping any time in the foreseeable future."