While the How to Train Your Dragon films have perhaps not had the same massive cultural footprint as something like Toy Story or Frozen, the first two entries in the series provided a rich bounty of in-depth and engaging characters, substantial and sophisticated narratives and profound themes, all wrapped in some of the most beautiful visuals that Dreamworks Animation–or any animation shop for that matter–have committed to the screen.
Now the story comes to an end with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, written and directed once again by Dean DeBlois (who had the same duties on the second film while co-directing and co-writing the first), and based loosely off the dozen novels penned by Cressida Cowell. Having one major creative voice leading the thousands who work on a film like this–in this case that of DeBlois–is perhaps a key factor in their consistency both visually and thematically, as DeBlois and his vast team have crafted a powerfully poignant and satisfying capper to their story.
It’s been a few years since the events of the second film, and now Hiccup (voiced again by Jay Baruchel) is the ruler of Berk, where he presides over a peaceful but chaotic land in which humans and dragons co-exist. However, the latter beginning to overrun the island kingdom, Hiccup is concerned that they may need to find a larger and more suitable home.
Hiccup’s hand is forced when a dark new threat in the form of the malevolent Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) appears, threatening Berk with devastation unless Hiccup hands over their dragons for extermination. At the same time, Hiccup’s fire-breathing companion Toothless is enthralled by the appearance of a female Light Fury–only the second of his species to emerge–with whom the affectionate dragon falls in love. The answer to all their problems and questions may lie in a dangerous voyage to seek out the Hidden World, the land beyond the sea where dragons supposedly come from.
DeBlois has gone with a more streamlined plot this time, as opposed to the many complications of the second film, and his effort has both pros and cons. The film’s more direct narrative thrust keeps it moving forward in a well-paced fashion, but the focus on Hiccup and Toothless leaves many of the colorful supporting characters adrift. The women in Hiccup’s life, his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera), get little to do except console and advise the king, while other supporting characters like Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Gobber (Craig Ferguson) are good for some oneliners or sight gags, but not much else. Likewise, the villainous Grimmel is particularly one-dimensional, although his use of the dragons as scapegoats for the world’s ills sounds suspiciously like a lot of the demagoguery we hear in the real world.
No, this is solidly Hiccup and Toothless’ story, and the former is an interesting character this time out because of the fact that he fails over and over again. Hiccup is clearly older and more mature, and makes decisions for his kingdom that he believes are the right ones, but a number of them end badly (although it’s reasonable to add that the stakes never quite reach tragic proportions). He keeps denying, to himself and others, that there is really only one decision for him to make, and his eventual realization that it is the only option that makes sense gives this movie its emotional heft.
The same goes for Toothless, who wordlessly struggles through the same internal conflict as his master, and whose inner life is brought beautifully to life by the Dreamworks animators. His courtship of the new Light Fury–a mating ballet of yearning and discovery that goes on for a dialogue-free 10 or 15 minutes–is not just a showstopper of a moment but a genuine piece of animated art that is both glorious and unique in the sense that DeBlois trusts the audience to stay with it.
It’s also one of many moments in the film where the viewer is keenly aware of just how visually astonishing this trilogy has continued to be. The Hidden World is the series’ crowning glory, where color, texture, shading and movement all blend to create a world that is wonderfully, kinetically alive. There are scenes in the movie that are just jaw-dropping in their visual splendor; the film is already one of the best-looking of 2019 without question.
Then it ends with a payoff that may seem predetermined but is nevertheless powerfully emotional and well-earned. It’s always difficult to stick the landing for any franchise, especially when the economics of the film industry almost always demand that there may be room for one more adventure down the line (here’s looking at you, Toy Story 4). And yes, it’s fair to say that The Hidden World doesn’t close the door conclusively on the people of Berk and the dragons they eventually came to love and live alongside. But it finishes up where it feels like it should, which is almost as rare as a Light Fury itself.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World opens this Friday, Feb. 22 in theaters.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye