How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Nearly five years ago I offered a glowing assessment of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, for the strengths of its story-telling, character evolution and visuals. It was something made with care, in a world when animated movies frequently aren’t, and that was worthy of praise. But then, with the exception of a Netflix original series, there was nothing, as Dreamworks struggled with a succession of not so great offerings, and as far as I understand it came close to serious financial difficulty.
Now that the ship has apparently been righted, this is too good of a franchise to lay dormant forever, and frankly it was too good of a story to leave without a conclusion. With the same cast and crew on board, I went into The Hidden World with some great expectations. Were these met, or has How To Train Your Dragon reached its limit?
A year on from the death of his father, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) struggles with the leadership of Berk, an island now dealing with a unsustainable dragon population. The depredations of dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) convince him his people need to find a new home for themselves and for the dragons, but the search for a mythical “Hidden World” is complicated by his relationship with Astrid (America Ferrera) and his dragon Toothless’ encounter with a “Light Fury”.
There was a lot I really liked about the second entry in this series, which I could sum up by saying that it took much of what was introduced in the first and then evolved, expanded and otherwise improved upon it. Well, The Hidden World somehow manages to pull the same trick again, in a production that serves as a surprisingly poignant and very entertaining final instalment to this franchise.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that it’s refreshing to see an animated series where the characters actually age: this story started with Hiccup as an awkward, unconfident 15 year-old, now he’s 21 and undertaking a difficult coming of age. By the end of it, as was liberally spoiled in trailers, he’s much older. And the great thing is that this isn’t some throwaway gimmick: it’s integral to the story being told, with underlying themes of growing up, accepting responsibility and confronting increasingly complicated adult problems. The Hiccup of The Hidden World is not the same person that he was when the series started. None of the characters are. They’ve changed, through their unique and common experiences, and a three-film narrative that showcases such an evolution, in this genre, is something to be applauded for its sheer uniqueness. In the pantheon of multi-installment CGI animated films, perhaps only Toy Story can say the same, and I really do feel like How To Train Your Dragon is approaching that level.
Hiccup is in difficulty as a leader: Stoic (Gerard Butler, appearing again in a few flashbacks) is a tough act to follow, Berk has overpopulation problems and hordes of pirates are continually on the prowl. He very well might not be up to the task, no matter the support or encouragement of those around him. He struggles as a young man in love, dealing with the pressures of being expected to marry Astrid and what that might mean for the two of them, with she not exactly jumping for joy at the prospect either, a way of approaching their romance that comes off rather well, and isn’t really replicated in many other animated films. And he struggles as a dragon-rider, with a mount who increasingly doesn’t want to be around anymore, not when the possibility of a future with another Night Fury suddenly pops up.
It might surprise you to learn that a large portion of The Hidden World is dedicated to a dragon romance, and it might further surprise you to learn that this isn’t a bad thing. The first and second instalments centered themselves around new emotional attachments being made for Hiccup (Toothless in the first, and his mother Valka in the second) but this time it is the dragon’s turn. The courting between Toothless and the Light Fury is played seriously at times but mostly serves as an opportunity for some well-placed comedy. Mirroring the awkward teen romance that previously made an appearance in the series, it unfolds in a charming way; Toothless, lacking any kind of experience in such matters, proceeds to blunder his way through traditional and non-traditional dragon courtship rituals, most notably in a brilliantly constructed beachside sequence. But that dramatic seam is still there, as Hiccup and Toothless confront the reality they might soon be separated permanently.
The various allusions The Hidden World brings to its narrative are surprising in their maturity. At different points you have commentary on friends drifting apart due to romantic entanglements; the struggles of single parents; lack of self-confidence in one’s appearance, and jealously of others who appear better; the plight of the differently-abled; environmentalism and animal rights, the crushing weight of self-loathing; and the painful reality that love is inherently tied to loss, perhaps the key theme and thesis of the film.
I certainly don’t want to give the false impression that the film is a dramatic slog though. It has plenty of time for levity, with much made here of Hiccup’s assorted hangers on, which is the exact perfect use of comedic talents like Kristen Wiig or Jonah Hill (his character has the darkest joke of the feature, asking Hiccup, annoyed, at one point “Who died and made you Chief?” to the shocked gasps of onlookers). I think it is quite rare to find a film, especially in this genre, that manages to mix comedy and drama as well as it does here, and hosts of other films (looking at you MCU) could take a lesson in the correct application.
The VA cast are old hands with these characters at this point, and while real A-listers like Cate Blanchett, and other well-known figures like Kit Harrington, are left picking up the pieces of vastly reduced roles, the majority are clearly having a lot of fun in comfortable parts here, most notably Wiig, who gets an extended monologue at one point that is one of the film’s more hilarious moments. Ferrera benefits from more agency for Astrid in the third installment, and forms, if I can use the cliche, the heart of the film through her relationship with Baruchel’s Hiccup.
Abraham’s villain is a step-up from Djimon Hounsou’s Drago. A sort of mirror image of Hiccup – the difference being that he killed the first Night Fury he came across, instead of befriending it – his goal is a refreshingly simple and specific quest to complete his personal holocaust of dragons, and not some vague notion of world domination. And while there is a Joker-esque element of “He’s always one step ahead”, he’s at least distinctive in both a character and visual sense, and proves a worthy foil to the young, relatively inexperienced Hiccup, whose own crisis of confidence doesn’t mesh well with the uber-confident Grimmel. The competing philosophies of treating dragons as equals and treating them as pack animals (or sport) isn’t anything new to the series really, but through Abraham’s performance it comes across as a more intriguing battle in the final instalment.
The film builds to a satisfying conclusion for the series, that ties back directly into the idea of love going hand in hand with loss, involving sacrifice and new hope at the same time. Committing to a full-on “XXX years later” ending was a gutsy call, as those can so easily be fan service trash (cough, Harry Potter, cough) but I feel The Hidden World nails it, tying a line between the experiences of its main human and dragon characters as they go through the various stages of life in connected ways. It’s done so well with its treatment of character and emotional story-telling, that I would say it has earned a little leeway in that respect.
Visually of course The Hidden World is the delight that you would have expected. This series has always had a way with colour and general variety, and that doesn’t change here. What could have been a rather lame basic colour alteration for the Light Fury becomes something altogether more interesting when the element of camouflage is introduced; an overpopulated Berk is awash with narrowly built dragon adorned buildings, in imminent danger of collapse; the titular abode of dragons is a crystalline masterpiece of CGI imagery; and the standard work on characters and locales is, as ever, top notch. Perhaps it is because of the patience in instalments, but what should be by now familiar soaring rides on the backs of dragons still doesn’t seem well-worn to me: there is still a thrill to be had through the vicarious flight into the clouds. This franchise finds the right balance between cartoonish and realistic when it comes to its actual cast, and that is something a lot of other films frequently aren’t able to do.
I don’t want to harp on about this kind of thing too much of course, but it bears repeating. We comment on things like colour and inventiveness when it comes to CGI and traditional animation, but there are times when those phrases can appear repetitive or trite. There is some genuine art in The Hidden World, vistas of amazing originality, backgrounds of stunning creativity, looming islands, breath-taking skies, buildings designs that radiate innovation. It’s always been that way, and it really is one of the biggest selling points of the franchise at large.
This conclusion – and by all accounts it is framed as that, though I wouldn’t discount the possibility that Dreamworks decides to milk the cow a little bit more – is a well-deserved one for an excellent franchise, and it does not disappoint. As a stand-alone story and as the third part of a trilogy, it works really well, with excellent VA, script, visuals and general narrative. It’s sadly rare, outside of Pixar anyway, to find animated films that are still treated with this level of care and reverence by their production teams, and for that reason The Hidden World is strongly recommended by me.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).