“How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” a Moving Conclusion to a Great Animated Trilogy


MARCH 7, 2019

Now that the Oscars are over, it’s time to say goodbye the movie year 2018, and hello 2019!

Actually, 2019 movies have been with us for the past two months, and as usual it was time to haul out the film garbage, from teen slasher epics, mediocre romantic comedies and the annual Liam Neesom revenge hooey.  Forgettable all.

Finally, there’s a film very much worth seeing, and it comes from a very familiar place.

To my mind, the “How to Train Your Dragon” series is second only to the “Toy Story” trilogy in its skilled filmmaking and the care it takes in its writing.  There’s no yuk-yuk pop culture references in these films, a dependency for jokiness that seems to infect all other animated films from Dreamworks.

The “Dragon” series is instead straight-forward and emotional, thanks largely to the vision of Dean DeBlois who wrote and directed all three films.  His characters are based on relationships, whether it be between humans or dragons, creating a magical work where they all can co-exist.

To catch you up on where we left off, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is now leader of the Vikings in their homeland of Berk and continues his quest to help to bring endangered dragons to a safe home.  Unfortunately, having so many dragons in one place captures the attention of dragon hunters, led by the evil Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), and Berk soon becomes their target, this endangering not only the dragons but the people of Berk as well.

Hiccup recalls that his late father Stoick (Gerard Butler) spoke of a place called the Hidden World, in which dragons and Vikings live together in harmony, so he and his trusty Night Fury dragon Toothless set out to find this magical place.  Meanwhile, Toothless may have found the love of his life in a white Night Fury, nicknamed the “Light Fury.”  As the once fearsome dragon turns to mush at his new girlfriend, Hiccup does not yet realize that the Light Fury is being used by Grimmel as bait to capture Toothless.

Meanwhile, Hiccup’s romance with Astrid (America Ferrara) is heating up as well, but he realizes his growing bond with Astrid is taking him away from his bond with Toothless, whom he would need to defeat Grimmel and his growing threat to the dragons.  And then there’s the question of The Hidden World — if it’s such a paradise for dragons, would humans even fit in there?

There’s been lots of ideas floating throughout the trio of “How to Train Your Dragon” films, and it’s intentional.  Unlike those animated sequels where the subsequent chapters tell the same story over and over again, these films have always been conceived as a continuous narrative, according to DeBlois, much the same way that Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films continued the same story throughout the trilogy.

If “The Hidden World” is arguably the least of the three films, it’s not because it’s a bad film.  Far from it — it’s easily the best 2019 release so far — but most of the significant story beats have been hit in the first two films.  And, let’s face it, Grimmel, despite his fearsome name, is a comparably lame villain compared to the first two films.  Sure, Abraham is verbally chewing everything in sight, but it’s never really made clear just why he is obsessed with hunting dragons.  Without that, he is just reduced to a “I will destroy everything you love” kind of generic bad guy, and this series can do better than that.

Still, the visuals in the film are absolutely stunning — the series’ visual consultant is master cinematographer Roger Deakins, so how could they not be?  –and one sequence in particular, a dialogue-free montage showing the courtship rituals between Toothless and the Light Fury, may contain the most beautiful images of any in the trilogy.  Though I’m not a big fan of 3D, its use in this series is intelligently done — yes, there are “wow!” moments where the 3D is obvious, but DeBlois also uses it spacially, always giving the viewer a sense of just where Hiccup, Astrid and Toothless are in relation to all of the other characters.  To my mind, the “Dragon” series is the best use of 3D in any animated series and ranks way up there with “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” in its use among all films.

I’d like to note one small rarely-discussed element of the “Dragon” films — it’s inclusion of disability.  Toothless’ tail does not function properly, and he needs a prosthetic to be able to fly, key to his existence.  And Hiccup lost his leg in the first “Dragon” and has been wearing a prosthetic ever since.  Except when it’s occasionally used as a defense weapon, his artificial leg is never mentioned…it’s just part of Hiccup’s life.  Well done.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s final ten minutes.  No spoilers here, and though it’s a bold step, it’s a lovely one and brings the trilogy to an ending that’s artistically sound and emotionally satisfying.

DeBlois has said that he has designed the series to be a trilogy, and that’s all.  But could we see a “Dragon 4”?  After all, “Toy Story” was thought by many to be the best animated trilogy of all time and was set to be three films and that would be all.  “Toy Story 4” opens in theaters on June 24.