Despite the fact that they take four years or more to make, the How To Train Your Dragon movies are some of the most consistent, visually impressive and outright engaging animated features made in the last 10 years. And the latest installment, The Hidden World, is being billed as he final chapter in the saga about deep friendship between a young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his Night Fury dragon Toothless, as they protect each other and the dragon species.
Based on the popular book series by Cressida Cowell, the trilogy has remained so consistent in large part because all three films have been directed and written/co-written by Dean DeBlois (who also made the really enjoyable Lilo & Stitch). Each installment has also had cinematographer Roger Deakins on board as a “visual consultant,” resulting in some truly eye-popping camera work, interesting lighting choices, and a more advanced, film-like visual language than your average animated feature.
I’ve enjoyed the stories of these films, and with The Hidden World, things take a slightly more serious tone as a terrifying dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) sets his sights on the dragons of Berk, Hiccup’s kingdom that has become a sanctuary for the world’s dragons. Grimmel is best known for killing all of the world’s Furies, and he is stunned to find out there is still one left in Toothless, making the danger all the more immediate for Hiccup. Using a female Night Fury to draw Toothless away from Berk, Grimmel begins his patient and dangerous process of separating the dragons from their Viking protectors so he can capture and/or slaughter them. What no one anticipates is that Toothless and his new female friend discover the existence of a fabled hidden place at the end of the ocean (the Vikings are flat earthers, sadly) where thousands of dragons live in peace. Once Hiccup finds out that this place that his late father (who we see in flashbacks this time around and is voiced by Gerard Butler) often discussed is real, he knows that it’s the only place where Berk’s dragons can exist safely away from those who would do them harm. The problem is that no humans can live there, so Toothless and Hiccup would be separated forever if this plan works.
The Hidden World is a story of maturity, with both Hiccup and Toothless pairing off with significant others in a more meaningful fashion. Hiccup and his best human friend Astrid (America Ferrera) must decide if they want to make a run at it both as a couple, and as the leaders of the Berk’s Vikings. In order to do this, Hiccup must go through the painful process of letting go of Toothless as a constant companion, which Toothless makes a little easier by going gaga over this other Fury. The film’s most emotionally wrenching moments all revolve around decisions and choices like this, and the likelihood of tears while watching this movie is high.
Some of the secondary Viking characters are sidelined to a degree, compared to their appearances in the previous films. But you can always count on a laugh from the likes of Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Craig Ferguson, and Kristen Wiig, with some of the more dramatic and action-oriented moments going to characters voiced by Kit Harrington and Cate Blanchett. But none of these characters/performers truly distinguish themselves outside of small moments scattered throughout the film; it feels like they are there for the vibe more than anything. But Baruchel, Ferrera and Abraham do tremendous voice work and keep their characters from becoming predictable or cliché—a rare achievement in animated works.
I don’t think the How to Train Your Dragon films have ever been better than the original, but the subsequent offerings have been close enough to matching that one’s charm and creativity to make them strong entries as far as sequels go. And I, for one, am sad to see them go. Each installment has allowed the characters and relationship to grow and evolve, and it feels as if they have been taking the growing ages of their fan base into consideration. The Hidden World is a work for slightly older kids—the stakes seem higher, the emotions more grown up, and the decisions more permanent. Not to make it sound pitch black in tone, but it is a darker entry in the series, and that’s how it should be. You can say you’re taking the kids, but you’ll know deep inside the film is as much for you as it is for them.
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