The post-Shrek jewel in Dreamworks Animation’s crown, the How To Train Your Dragon franchise has seen massive success over the last 10 years: two Oscar-nominated movies, a long-running TV spin-off show and a global army of devoted fans, many of whom have grown up following the adventures of young Viking chief Hiccup and his trusty scaled steed, Toothless.
It’s almost fitting, then, that the saga properly comes of age in The Hidden World, an emotional and visually resplendent threequel that’s, thankfully, definitely more Toy Story 3 than Shrek The Third.
Picking up a year after the events of How To Train Your Dragon 2, the beginning of the film sees the kingdom of Berk thriving under Hiccup’s (Jay Baruchel) rule as “the world’s first Viking-dragon utopia”, a place where man and beast can finally co-exist in harmony. Trouble is, it’s a bit too thriving – with Hiccup’s band of merry men and women rescuing more and more dragons from the outside world and bringing them back to safety, the place is getting a bit overpopulated.
Enter new baddie Grimmel the Grisly (voiced with an eeeevil eloquence by Amadeus’ F. Murray Abraham), a seasoned dragon hunter employed by a rival Viking tribe to rid Berk of its winged protectors. His plan? To tempt away alpha dragon – and Hiccup’s best bud – Toothless with a female ‘Light Fury’, before going in for the kill.
Grimmel is a formidable foe, for sure, and after an initial display of power, Hiccup decides to run rather than fight a battle he’s not sure he can win. And so the Berkians head out on a quest to relocate their beloved kingdom to the mythical “Hidden World” – the dragons’ spiritual home.
Plot-wise, this is probably the thinnest of the three films – it’s essentially a chase movie with a fairly one-dimensional villain, albeit an entertaining one, whose motivation doesn’t extend much past “Must. Kill. All. Dragons.”
Nor does it provide a lot in the way of real character development for many of the human support characters. America Ferrera’s Astrid is still the brave, capable confidante; Jonah Hill’s Snotlout is still a posturing wannabe ladies’ man; and twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (voiced by Justin Rupple – doing his best TJ Miller impression after the original actor was recast – and Kristen Wiig) are still testing everyone’s patience.
Minor gripes aside, the film zips along at a cracking pace, simultaneously providing an easy jumping-on point for new Dragons fans while rewarding long-term devotees with some inventive world-building and poignant throwbacks to previous chapters.
And in terms of animated spectacle, it’s hard to beat. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, with the jaunt into the immersive, kaleidoscopic and magnificently rendered Hidden World of the title providing one of the film’s – and perhaps the series’ – visual stand-outs.
The set-pieces, too, are impressively staged and loaded with real peril (worth noting for younger viewers). Grimmel might not be the most rounded of antagonists, but, thanks to his long, ashen-faced design and Murray’s waspish vocals, he is at least suitably sinister. He’s even downright scary at times, mostly when chaperoned by his ferocious “deathgrippers” – spiky, spiny creatures with razor-sharp tusks and venomous, knife-like stingers that hound our heroes at every turn.
What really elevates this final chapter far beyond the majority of toon sequels, though, is its sheer emotional heft. Returning writer/director Dean DeBlois knows that the bromance between Hiccup and the loveable, dog-like Toothless – one of the all-time great animated characters – is the real heart of this series, and rightly focuses on developing their intertwined arcs to a satisfying conclusion.
For Toothless, it’s the experience of first love – his courtship of the Light Fury provides the film with its most endearing (and dialogue-free) sequences, as well as its biggest laughs. For Hiccup, it’s the forging of his own identity, independent of his loyal wingman – finally completing the journey into adulthood that he started in the first movie.
For all the fun, spectacle and tying up of narrative loose ends, The Hidden World is really a film about growing up, letting go and embracing change – a true coming-of-ager, if you will. It’s also a pretty definitive franchise endpoint, rounding off the series with a thrilling, heartfelt finale that will leave even the most stoic of viewers with a lump in their throats. Bring tissues.