When audiences attend a children’s film, they don’t expect much: a few laughs, some sort of adventure, and perhaps a moral or two tucked in to give the adults something to discuss with the kids. Generally, expectations are pretty low. From time to time, however, a film defies expectations and transcends simple entertainment to become something grander and far more connected to the zeitgeist. So it is with the How to Train Your Dragon films, inspired by author Cressida Cowell’s 12-book series, which takes its theatrical bow in the third and final film, The Hidden World. Strange as it sounds, these films focused on a boy and his dragon, reminding us all that a pure heart can make a difference. For this final outing, returning writer/director Dean DeBlois captures our imagination once more, weaving within his tale layers upon layers of thematic material which never stoops into banal emotionality, making the whole of the film a meditation on growing up.
It’s been one year since Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) took over as chief of Berk after his father, Stoick the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler), died while trying to prevent Drago Bludvist (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) from creating a dragon army to conquer the world. Since then, Hiccup and his team of dragon riders – Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), Snotlout (voiced by Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (voiced by Kristen Wiig and Justin Rupple), and his mother Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett) – routinely rescue dragons from trappers working for other regional warlords like Drago. Desperate to stop the dragon riders, the warlords hire specialist dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) to capture Hiccup’s dragon Toothless, for where the alpha dragon goes, the rest will follow. Hiccup realizes the only option left for the dragons is a return to the mythical Hidden World, a place where dragons can be free from the threat of humanity.
The folly of most finales is the need to cram in everything possible, putting the story in conflict with the need for a strong finish. DeBlois avoids the standard cramped, bloated, and endless parade of fan-service in favor of a strong story whose nervous system utilizes thousands of tiny moments from the previous outings to craft an emotionally satisfying and undeniably wondrous experience. In one instance with Toothless, it’s the use of a gag which manages to tickle the nostalgic aspects of the story across the previous films while remaining focused on the thematic notions of moving forward in this one. In another, it’s watching Toothless soar through the sky, but without Hiccup, something which the dragon couldn’t do without his rider due to an injury earned in the first film. Each and every one of these moments of flight captures the thrilling sensation of freedom Toothless feels as he dives in and out of clouds, even as it’s a bittersweet reminder of the severing of his physical connection to Hiccup.
Even with a greater portion of the time devoted to Toothless’s physical and emotional journey, The Hidden World doesn’t leave Hiccup behind. At first seeming to lean once more on the now-tired villain-is -the-opposite-of-Hiccup routine, the connection between Grimmel and Hiccup is unveiled to be far deeper. For in a move immediately unique for a children’s film, The Hidden World positions Hiccup between the memories of his past and the physical manifestation of a twisted alternate future, goading him out of his self-doubt and spurring him into action. Moment after moment, triumph to tragedy and back again, The Hidden World is firing on all cylinders in a way which is truly unexpected and deeply heartrending.
Granted it’s only been a year for the characters compared to five for the audience, but the characters don’t seem to change much from film to film. The riders, save for Astrid and Valka, are virtually the same as they’ve always been. This makes them great comic relief, except they rarely add anything to narrative momentum. There is a fantastic scene involving Ruffnut that puts her general stupidity to use, but that alone doesn’t make up for a lack of growth. Even Hiccup, a character whom the stories have always gone out of their way to show as progressive and intelligent, seems to always have the same plan when faced with a villain. Thankfully, he quickly adapts to a new plan, but the fact that he doesn’t apply the same adaptive inventive thinking to his life-threatening problems as he does to everything else is tough to overlook.
When it comes to telling stories of beloved characters, endings can be tricky. How do you do it in a way that feels honest and still manages to satisfy? Surpassing even the basest expectations Dean DeBlois’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World manages a truly amusing, impassioned, and adventurous experience. He takes the films to their natural conclusion without sacrificing anything or succumbing to pure fan service. So, as the John Powell score swells and Toothless and Hiccup take to the skies, audiences of all ages will know that the story may be ending, but the message of their friendship remains.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.