I’ve been trying to hard not to demean the merit of computer animation, so hopefully this won’t come across as a backhanded compliment—with the How to Train Your Dragon series, I truly felt like I was watching films, rather than kids’ cartoons.
This time around, the land of Berk has a major problem—there are too many dragons. A strange conflict for a movie about dragons to have, but it turns out that the wholesome refugee operation from new chief Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel) isn’t so sustainable in their current home.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a successful sequel (a threequel, nonetheless) because it doesn’t try to repeat the success from the previous two movies. Instead, like any sequel is supposed to do, it looks back to its predecessors and asks a simple question and mines as much drama from it as possible. The question being: now what?
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Director: Dean DeBois
Release Date: February 22, 2019
As with any good sequel, The Hidden World demonstrates growth. Hiccup is still the same character we know from the 2010 original film, but everything he does and says carries all of the weight and experience that has come since then. He finds himself against a new and worthy challenger, one who has a completely different philosophy on dragons than the optimistic denizens of Berk.
Despite my love for the first two films, I couldn’t tell you the names of the bad guys in them. Grimmel the Grisly, however, as voiced by F. Murray Abraham, really chews at the animated scenery as the main villain in this third installment. There’s something very Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds about his approach as a dragon hunter and his disdain for Berk’s dragon “utopia,” and Hiccup and friends’ various attempts to free dragons from his capture, put the two on a collision course.
It’s a shame that we don’t recognize voice performers as much as live-action ones—Dreamworks may be prone to using celebrities more than Pixar, but using a seasoned actor like Abraham was to the film’s advantage. It’s a constant battle of wits, and watching personalities clash was almost as marvelous as the visuals themselves.
That isn’t to discredit all of the returning celebrity voice performers—Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, and Justin Rupple are all back. Ferguson as Hiccup’s mentor figure and the rest as his motley crew. They all have essentially one long-running gag each, but they all have at least one standout moment that should make even the most cynical moviegoer crack a smirk. Cate Blanchett and Kit Harington, after major roles in the second film, are underutilized here.
Going with the growth and maturation of the characters, nothing demonstrates that better than America Ferrera returning as Hiccup’s romantic partner Astrid. Their B-plot has to do with the fact that, well, Hiccup is chief, and he’s gotta think about marriage. As someone in my 20s myself, the concept of marriage is still absurd, but a reality that is well-reflected and depicted in this fictional story. Their romantic dynamic is organic, and mostly lacking in cliches.
I can’t really say the same for Toothless, Hiccup’s beloved Nightfury dragon partner. As you’ve gathered from all of the promotional material, there is now a lady Nightfury that Toothless is smitten with—a “Lightfury,” as they name her. I’m sure TV Tropes has a better name for a “it’s just the male character, but a female version” romantic interest, but that’s all it comes down to. For being a movie that is part of a series that subverts cliche, it was strange to me that the center of this movie revolved around one. One scene of Toothless basically performing a mating call might be funny for kids, but for the most part, this Lightfury is a Manic Pixie Dream Dragon.
Artistically, The Hidden World is still consistent with its exceptional predecessors. To my understanding, Roger Deakins was a key visual consultant on the first film, which brought this crispness to the series that most other mainstream computer animated films are lacking. Flying is still exhilarating to behold, and the detail on each piece of clothing, armor, dragon scale, and so on are magnificent.
John Powell delivers yet another rousing score—the compose, of course, brings back favorite tunes and themes from the first two films, while bringing a unique epic and menacing element whenever Berk clashes with Grimmel’s forces. It’s one of those musical scores where you can listen to it and visualize just what is happening without having to watch the movie.
The second film had some of the most large-scale exciting battle imagery, but The Hidden World provides some fun swashbuckling sequences with amusing character moments. Unsurprisingly, that swashbuckling action is reflected perfectly by Powell’s score, and the action choreography flows well and looks crisp as ever.
If there’s one big criticism I have with The Hidden World, besides the hackneyed Toothless romance, it would be that the film feels too short. Sure, it’s the same length as the previous film, but some sequences needed more time to breathe. I won’t say much about the titular “Hidden World,” but the imagery was so gorgeous and contrasting to the rest of the film’s aesthetic that I wanted to stay longer in it.
Yes, the final action sequence is fun, but once the movie arrived there, I was surprised that the it was wrapping up already. There’s a big development during the film’s resolution, one that might have made sense within the context of the narrative’s grand issue. In the moment, it felt off and unearned.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is my least favorite of the trilogy, but it is still an exceptional entry. It captures all of the artistic elements that captivated me in the first place, and furthers the narrative and character growth in a meaningful way. A cliched romance in the center of everything and some underwhelming closure bogged it down, but this series is still light years ahead of its fellow animated films.