*** out of ****
(for action adventure and some mild rude humor)
Released: February 22, 2019
Runtime: 104 minutes
Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harrington
The How To Train Your Dragon series has a loyal following. I have not been among those followers.
The films have bored me, quite frankly. That’s what made this the best kind of blindside.
Miraculously, at times rapturously, I was swept up by How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and final film in the trilogy. It strikes an emotional conclusion so satisfying, so moving, that I honestly didn’t think it was possible. And visually, it’s absolutely spectacular.
The original Dragon, about a young Viking named Hiccup who must overcome his weaknesses to rise to his destiny – which revolved around taming the legendary Night Fury dragon (named Toothless) – followed a generic Hero’s Journey template, with some boilerplate father/son dynamics mixed in. The sequel essentially re-hashed those things.
Even the animation seemed pedestrian, if also uniformly solid so far as modern animation goes. Plus, I never quite cottoned to Jay Baruchel’s nasally teen American voice as Hiccup, cast against the Scottish accents all around him. Aside from some satisfying villains, I could take or leave the How To Train Your Dragon legend (mostly leave).
But The Hidden World does one key thing (well, several smart things, really, but one crucial bit in particular) that helps this finale to significantly transcend its predecessors…which I’ll get to shortly.
With Hiccup having fulfilled his mission of uniting the Viking and Dragon worlds, bringing peace to the Island of Berk as its new leader, The Hidden World is able to ditch the Hero’s Journey beats, tropes, and formulas, and the burdensome angst about “purpose’ and “place”, to tell a very specific story of its own, and set off into an imaginative, inspired new adventure.
Maintaining its solid villain track record, new baddie Grimmel (perfectly cast with the voice of F. Murray Abraham) leads a quest to rid the world of dragons, with Berk’s fire-breathing herd squarely in his sites – and Toothless, the black Night Fury, most especially.
This leads Hiccup to seek the rumored Hidden World, a secret realm where dragons live freely, safe from the evils of a corrupt humanity. There, the Vikings and Dragons could live together without fear.
But then added to that, returning writer/director Dean DeBlois drops in an intriguing new wrinkle: a new dragon just like Toothless, but white and female, dubbed the Light Fury. She becomes the foundation for that “one key thing”:
In the first two films, Toothless was merely a catalyst for the hero Hiccup. But now, Toothless is given a full arc of his own. He’s no longer just a catalyst; he’s an actual character, with his own trajectory, journey, and pathos.
That’s what the best films of this kind do, what they understand and get right – like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which set the bar. As a “person” with his own agency, E.T. was always going to need to phone home, whether he ever met Elliott or not. Now, Toothless has his own aspiration, too – a romance – apart from being Hiccup’s loyal steed.
DeBois orchestrates entire wordless sequences focused solely on Toothless and Light Fury, tracking each other, then testing the waters, and then courting, each new scene employing cuteness and grandeur, ranging from sweet comedy (kids will get into giggle fits) to pure magic.
This also creates a fascinating arc for Hiccup as well. Who is Hiccup without Toothless? Now, instead of the familiar arc of “finding his courage” or “finding himself”, there’s a legitimate identity crisis.
It makes Hiccup’s character richer, and does the same for the father/son dynamics (seen in flashback) that go beyond the tired, simplistic flaccidity of “Does dad believe in me?” or “Why can’t he just accept me for who I am?!” Now it’s about maturing and growing, not merely into a hero or even a leader but into a capital-m Man, a maturation that requires substantial life lessons. “With love comes loss,” his dad Stoick says, “that’s part of the deal.”
Along with a more rewarding story and characters, the animation marks a new franchise standard, especially in the Hidden World which is such a dazzling wonder. DeBois lets us bask in it, too, allowing us to take it all in along with the characters, and not just zipping through it as they soar from A to B. (Acid-spewing dragons also add a visual and dramatic punch.)
Sure, the villain becomes a bit too easy to defeat in the end, and even the underlying plot is fairly basic, but those are minor drawbacks in this truly grand scheme, especially as the stakes of the climax are rooted in character – in not knowing how those sad tensions will resolve – rather than in predictable plot inevitabilities. That’s what makes it truly thrilling and effectively poignant.
The Hidden World surpasses the first two How To Train Your Dragons in every respect. If you didn’t care much for the first two, give this one a chance. If you loved them both, then buckle up. You’re in for a remarkable, rousing, and likely overwhelming conclusion to this cherished saga.