By Andrea Thompson
For the final chapter in a trilogy that has always been about a legendary friendship between man and mythical, awe-inspiring creatures, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” feels rather anti-climactic.
As the movie begins, the friendship between the two species is still going strong, with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his friends rescuing and freeing captured dragons on a ship. Their attempts are all the funnier for just barely being effective, with the dragons they’ve befriended as their main saving grace, a fact that is becoming worrisome to a few.
More immediately worrisome is the fact that the rescued dragons are all taken back to Berk, which has become a kind of paradise. An overcrowded paradise that is getting to be nearly overrun by the flying creatures Hiccup is committed to rescuing. It’s also made them a target for those who would exploit dragons for their own gain. It doesn’t seem too much of a hindrance though, until Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) shows up. He’s a gaunt, long-faced guy who is deeply suited for our times, and would be even more if he was allowed to be more of a credible threat.
That’s not to say that what we get of him isn’t compelling. Like most good villains, he’s a dark reflection of the film’s hero, mostly in how knowledgeable he is about dragons and his desire for peace. It’s just that for him, the path to that peace is eliminating all dragons from the world, with the language he uses to justify is actions sounding frighteningly emblematic of the hate speech of our current time, what with his talk of humans being the superior species.
Hiccup’s response to this is to…run. Convinced that the legends his father told him of a hidden world where dragons live in harmony are true, Hiccup decides that their best chance is to flee to that land where they can supposedly live away from the humans who would exploit their beloved companions. But as his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) points out, running away and trying to hide from your problems rarely works, and greedy humans tend to have a way of showing up and making a mess.
Hiccup is also facing big potential changes in his relationships as well. Since he and Astrid have been together for so long, people have begun openly asking when they’ll marry. Astrid herself is given one of those thankless girlfriend roles, the kind where she is more competent and authoritative than the male lead in every way, yet must constantly reassure him that he’s good enough to lead. Toothless is also at a crossroads of his own. He’s met a Light Fury, which is a female dragon of his own species, and may choose to depart from his beloved friend to be with her.
All the ingredients are present for an action-packed journey with deep emotional stakes. While the ending is a genuinely heartfelt story of learning to let go and embrace change, the lead-up to it is so focused on how various relationships progress to truly allow Grimmel to emerge as the truly terrifying villain he could be. He’s an interesting foe, but not much more, and even the exquisitely directed, well choreographed fight scenes feel like they could be better, with the final face-off more far less suspenseful than it should be. The ending is far more mature than kids’ movies are typically allowed to be, but so much is left out beforehand that it can’t help but feel like somewhat of an unnecessary sacrifice.