* Fans in Viking helmets eager for opening, reviews positive
* First instalment of trilogy grossed $495 million
* Dragons mope, preen and breathe fire in expressive roles
By Alexandria Sage
CANNES, France, May 16 (Reuters) - Dragons and Vikings invaded the Cannes film festival on Friday, with the eagerly awaited second instalment of "How to Train your Dragon" set to breathe fire on the French Riviera.
Due to hit screens on July 2, hopes are high for the 3D "Dragon 2", written and directed by Canadian animator Dean DeBlois, given the $495 million in global box office receipts the first film of the trilogy has grossed.
Fans wearing Viking helmets with huge horns could be seen meandering across La Croisette, Cannes' palm-lined boulevard, ahead of the film's global premiere on Friday night at the festival and the walk up the red carpet for cast members, including Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera and Cate Blanchett.
"It's super-exciting to be here and there's no better way to roll out the film, there's no splashier, more prestigious way than to take it to the Palais (theatre) and have an audience full of well-dressed folks judge it accordingly," DeBlois told Reuters.
The first "Dragon" became a breakout hit through word of mouth. It earned a nomination for best animated film at the 2011 Academy Awards and represented another feather in the cap of DreamWorks Animation, the studio now in its 20th year.
"We have had a 20-year love affair, we have loved being part of Cannes and Cannes has loved us back," DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg told a news conference.
He cited other DreamWorks films that have passed through the festival including "Shrek" and "Madagascar": "We have so many lovely memories here."
In a positive early review, Hollywood trade paper Variety called the second "Dragon" DreamWorks' "strongest sequel yet."
CUSHY DRAGON LIFE
"Dragons used to be a problem, but now they've moved in," says our young Viking protagonist, Hiccup, at the start of the film.
Indeed, since we last left our dragons in the first film, they've been living the good life on the island of Berk, the Viking stronghold.
Around-the-clock feeding stations and free dental care underscore the starring role the now-tamed dragons play among the Vikings, who consider them part of the family after Hiccup managed in the first instalment to bridge the interspecies divide by gaining the trust of the dragon Toothless.
As in the first film, it is hard to peel one's eyes away from Toothless and the other dragons, so rife with personality, expressiveness and individual quirks.
Whether moping, grooming themselves like the most fastidious of cats or expressing outrage when other dragons sniff their hindquarters, the fire-breathers are the real stars of the film.
"Dragons are kind, gentle creatures that can bring people together," says Hiccup. But not everyone agrees.
The evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou) has been building up a dragon army, wanting to use the powerful beasts for dastardly deeds, including wrecking havoc on the Vikings.
Hiccup and Toothless escape from Berk to try to thwart Drago's plans, ignoring warnings from Hiccup's father and chief, Stoick (Gerard Butler). They stumble across a dragon sanctuary where they find Hiccup's mother - long believed dead - who has been there for 20 years, busy rescuing dragons. She is played by Blanchett, with a distractingly inconsistent accent.
The family reunites, but now they are surrounded by Drago's army. A mighty battle ensues - brought to life by newly patented DreamWorks technology, which Katzenberg said helps serve the interests of the storytellers.
"'Dragons 2' actually pushes those (innovation) barriers, takes animation to a new place, something that I hope will exceed the expectations of our audiences."
Blanchett was peppered with questions from journalists not about dragons, but her views on women in Hollywood. Her comments mirrored those of other women at the festival, which is often criticized for not including enough films by female directors.
"We live in a world where there's still not equal pay for equal work, and I just don't understand why in 2014 that's still the case," she said.
"I feel like sometimes we're back in the Middle Ages." (Editing by Pravin Char)