How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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.

★★★★

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Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★