Cast: (voiced by) Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham
Director: Dean DeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois
DreamWorks Animation, the studio most famous for such franchises as Shrek, Madagascar and Kung-Fu Panda, doesn’t get enough credit for How to Train Your Dragon. In an age where Disney and Pixar are held up as the gold standard for mainstream animation, this is a trilogy that boasts the same standard of breath-taking animation, the same exceptional ability to handle complex and profound themes and the same universal appeal as the best of what the Mouse has to offer (that the second film lost the Best Animated Film Oscar to Big Hero 6 is still a sore spot for me). An epic fantasy for children and adults alike about heroism, family and growing up, what makes How to Train Your Dragon special is how adult and mature it is capable of being while still remaining light-hearted and whimsical and also how whole-heartedly committed it is to illustrating positive portrayals of wholesome themes. This is a series where the weedy, awkward boy finds strength through compassion and friendship, where the tough, beefy Viking chief has no trouble openly expressing affection to his wife and son and where diplomacy and de-escalation are the preferred methods for resolving conflict while violence is depicted as a tragic resort. The Hidden World is the conclusion to the trilogy and it brings this wonderful tale to a fitting and bittersweet end.
Berk, the island community that grew into a haven where man and dragon could co-exist in harmony, has grown further still into a bustling metropolis. Under the leadership of Hiccup, the inventive and progressive chief whose friendship with Toothless, the loveable Night Fury, made all of this possible, it would seem that the Viking tribe has never known a greater period of prosperity and peace. It soon becomes abundantly clear however that the more dragons Hiccup and his fellow dragon-riders, including his long-time girlfriend Astrid, rescue, the more overpopulated Berk becomes. So chaotic and crowded is their human-dragon utopia that some are starting to question whether the two species can continue to live together in the long run. Hiccup thus resolves to find the Hidden World, a legendary realm where dragons supposedly live in peace free from the intrusion of humankind. Meanwhile Hiccup and Toothless discover a female Night Fury (dubbed the Light Fury by Astrid for her sleek, white scales) and the puppy-like dragon is entranced. The heartening revelation that Toothless is not the last of his species after all however carries with it a more sombre realisation that maybe the time has come for Hiccup and Toothless to go their separate ways so that they might build new lives for themselves with their companions.
In the grand scheme of things, The Hidden World is the weakest of the How to Train Your Dragon films in the same way that Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original Star Wars films. It is still a good film in its own right and it offers a satisfying ending to its epic, sprawling narrative, but it also suffers from a rather digressive plot and a tendency to recycle ideas from previous instalments. The main villain this time around is Grimmel, a dragon-hunter whose motivations are not any subject of interest and who, like Drago, only really exists as an explicitly evil obstacle for the benevolent heroes to overcome. He is voiced by F. Murray Abraham, which definitely counts for a lot, but it isn’t enough for him to stand out as more than a generic baddie whose existence you forget about as soon as he exits the picture. The characterisations of such side characters as Hiccup’s comic relief entourage of Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut also feel rather routine at this point as the series no longer really knows what to do with them beyond giving them some funny lines and bits to perform (which, don’t get me wrong, are good, especially the scene where an imprisoned Ruffnut irritates her captors into letting her go). The same goes for Hiccup’s mother Val who had such an astounding role in the previous film but here is pretty much relegated to the wise sage offering advice when needed. The plot also has a little trouble taking off as much of what occurs simply serves to delay the characters in their course.
When the film does get things moving and plays to its greatest strengths, that’s when The Hidden World really shines. One thing the series has always done astoundingly well is visual splendour (the illustrious Roger Deakins did serve as a visual consultant on all three films after all) and that is as true here as it’s ever been. One of the best scenes in the whole trilogy takes place when Toothless and his newfound sweetheart flirt by swooping and soaring all around the island together, zipping in and out of clouds and dancing around each other as if they were partners in an aerial ballet accompanied by John Powell’s enchanting score. When the film is less about Grimmel and more about the dragon romance and what it means to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, the film is able to really draw from the themes and character development at its disposal thanks to the splendid efforts of the last two films and it pays off here in spades. One of the central themes of the trilogy is personal growth as we’ve seen in Hiccup’s transition from childhood to maturity. It’s not just Hiccup who has to grow up however but Toothless as well as he finds himself with desires and commitments that require him to be with his own kind, even if it means sacrificing a friendship that has meant so much to him. While the first two films were about bridging the enmity between humans and dragons through compassion and understanding, this is a film about the value of letting these wondrous beasts be so that they might find their own way in peace.
How to Train Your Dragon is a sublime trilogy of a kind that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Aesthetically it is amongst the finest animation you’ll see today with exquisitely designed environments resplendent with colour and the hundreds of dragons of all shapes, sizes and forms who are brought to vigorous life. Narratively it is a moving tale about growth and change that never flinched from depicting how difficult and harsh life could be yet remained inspiring and hopeful through it all. One of its greatest accomplishments is its portrayal of a human-animal relationship as visceral and as powerful as that of Hiccup and Toothless. Through expressions, body language, actions, gestures, parallels and the language of visual storytelling, How to Train Your Dragon formed an intrinsic bond between the two characters that felt as real as any relationship you might care to name between two humans and conveyed in visual terms what dialogue never could. This conclusion to a trilogy that comes second only to Toy Story in the hierarchy of animated film trilogies (although let’s wait and see how no. 4 goes) closes on such a beautifully poignant and heartfelt note that no amount of minor flaws that I could point out can even come close to making me feel like the journey wasn’t worth it. The Hidden World is not a perfect film but it does contain the perfect ending and that is enough.