Closing a trilogy as strong as the How to Train Your Dragon one is no easy feat. After two films that took us on the journey of a boy becoming a man alongside his new found best friend, all the way through a brutal attack on a peaceful homeland that simultaneously saw the discovery of a parent and the death of another, the How to Train Your Dragon films come hand-in-hand with an unprecedented sense of maturity and growth within animated film making. While most animated franchises seem content to ignore the concept of time – save, perhaps, for Toy Story which at least grew Andy up in the third film, even while its protagonists remained ageless – Dean Deblois’ trilogy is focused on such a process. Watching Hiccup and Toothless embark on this journey has been extraordinary and, in The Hidden World, watching them complete it is nothing short of magical.
The Hidden World picks up a year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the Chief of Berk following the loss of his father Stoick (Gerard Butler, who resurfaces here in a well-utilised pair of flashback sequences) while his dragon buddy Toothless, thought to be the last of his Night Fury species, has settled nicely into his role as the Alpha. On a distant shore, though, a Viking known as Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is hunting dragons down in hopes of finding Toothless, the Alpha, with the use of one that has recently landed in his possession: a female Night Fury. Grimmel sets his sights on Berk, leaving Hiccup and Toothless in the difficult situation of saving a city against a madman while also fighting to ensure the survival of Toothless’ own kind.
As set up, there’s plenty of strong stuff here. Grimmel’s plans being so personal to Toothless, and by extension Hiccup too, give him all the groundwork to be a strong villain for the trilogy to end on, especially coming off the back of the second film’s terrifying Drago Bloodvist (Djimon Hounsou). The inclusion of the female Night Fury – here dubbed a Light Fury – adds another dimension to the story, with Toothless drawn to her instinctively but Hiccup unwilling to let go of the friend that made him the man he is today. On paper, The Hidden World engineers everything in clever, suitably climactic ways, so it’s somewhat frustrating that in the film’s second act, as we transition from premise to progression, things kind of lose their way.
Luckily though, with Roger Deakins remaining a visual consultant for the film, The Hidden World is a gorgeously rendered visual feast. More than just photo-realism though – of which there is plenty by the way, a close up of a stick in some sand made me audibly gasp – Deblois frames his film beautifully, and his character animation remains first rate. Toothless’ first real encounter with the Light Fury mimics real animal mating rituals, and Deblois’ plays the scene initially for comedic effect (it’s hilarious), but later for sheer beauty (it’s stunning). The film’s final act is set among a blaze of fire punctuated with a sharp sunset, illuminating characters faces in a vivid orange as they fight for their freedom. I would say it is inarguably the trilogy’s best looking instalment, as well as one of the most awe-inspiring animated features the medium has ever had.
We spend a lot of time in The Hidden World with Hiccup’s friends, characters previously demoted to simple one-liners and side quips but here given more screen time than before. Snotlout (Jonah Hill) pining over Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) feels weird when the film so clearly wants us to remember her only recently deceased husband. Tuffnet (Justin Ripple) spends a lot of the film teasing Hiccup over talk amongst the townspeople on his potential marriage to girlfriend and essentially second-in-command Astrid (America Ferrera), and while the subplot is mined for laughs it’s hard not to feel as if such a role could have been played more seriously, perhaps even handed over to Kit Harrington’s Eret who is otherwise underused despite the previous film symbolically signalling him as a potential father figure for Hiccup. The less said about the way the film uses Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) the better, really – in fact, her role to play as the film shifts between acts two and three may be the worst plotting decision this trilogy has made.
While spending so much time on these characters does hurt the film – one Ruffnut scene in particular massively overstays its welcome and couldn’t draw a single laugh from my sold-out screening – The Hidden World, thankfully, nails every big moment. At the core of the film is the concept of change, and how we grow and develop when those we care for grow in different ways to us. Early on, Astrid jokes about how Toothless having a girlfriend means he won’t have time for Hiccup anymore. It’s an effective moment, mostly because Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship and banter has always been and remains a highlight of the trilogy, but it also acts as a starting point for the film to then explore what this means for everyone involved.
The Hidden World’s final act, when these themes come full circle and the film begins its farewell both to its characters and us as an audience, is sublime. Deblois’ script is deeply, powerfully moving, relying on smart callbacks to earlier films – musical cues, character moments, shot framings, he packs them in beautifully – but never forgetting to keep the trajectory forwards. The Hidden World is very much a film about the future, a film about the paths we walk with others forking off into separate avenues, and it’s a beautifully told resolution – bring the tissues for the final act alone, you’re going to need them. A resonate ending to a trilogy we ought never to forget. Perhaps The Hidden World isn’t perfect as a film, but as a finale? It just might be.
Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Cast: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, F. Murray Abraham,Djimon Hounsou, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse