The How to Train Your Dragon franchise is a rarity. Non-Pixar series rarely display such end over end quality. Shrek? One and two are entertaining enough (we shall never speak of three). Despicable Me? Driven headlong into the minion covered ground. But How to Train Your Dragon, centered around the young Viking chief Hiccup and the lovable Toothless, has appeared as impervious as dragon scales to overstaying its welcome. For their third installment, The Hidden World, the duo return to confront change and a psychotic dragon hunter in a finish that’s less an ending crescendo to a franchise and more of an enjoyable standalone.
The film opens with our familiar gang, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Astrid (America Ferrera), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple). This time, they’re raiding a poaching ship to free imprisoned dragons. The team is still rough around the edges, depending on their respective dragons to bail them out instead of each other. Teamwork is a concurrent theme of the film, but isn’t fully expressed even in its brief snippets. Like most unruly cinematic worlds, Hidden World relies on Hiccup’s supporting crew to be cardboard characters. They’re reliable for the same jokes, which quickly lose their appeal, while fulfilling their momentary and immediate purpose of comic relief.
Hidden World‘s prevalent message centers around its heroes’ unnecessary dependency on dragons, especially in regards to Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup’s self reliance is put to the test when dragon poachers hire Night Fury hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a showy Dracula type who relishes the thrill of the hunt. He wants Toothless — the Alpha — believing the dragons of Berk will follow him to the poachers. Grimmel plans to capture Toothless by luring him with a Light Fury (Night Furies mate for life).
Hidden World is comprised of three competing narratives: Hiccup’s self reliance and his hunt to find the dragons’ hidden world — the birth place of all dragons — where he believes he can hide Toothless and Berk, and the love stories of Toothless and the Light Fury and Hiccup and Astrid. What could have been a mess of narratives, is nimbly balanced in Hidden World.
As Toothless begins to fall in love, finding his freedom, Hiccup becomes more reliant on Astrid for strength and guidance. In many ways, Astrid would make a capable leader of Berk…..but, you know, Vikings.
Instead, Hidden World becomes a film where we’re waiting on Hiccup to find any semblance of self confidence — which can provide an elusive battle for the audience to respect Hiccup as much as Astrid does. In fact, Toothless’ romance is so earned and endearing that Astrid and Hiccup feel like too much of a sideshow. If you’re Team Toothless, which why wouldn’t you be, then Hidden World will provide some truly touching moments with his new boo as they romantically fly together over shimmering oceans.
The film’s zenith, fittingly, happens when Hiccup and Astrid discover the dragons’ hidden world. The animation is quite simply gorgeous: It begins as a purple, green, and black neon wonder, then transitions into full technicolor magic as an organic flow of colors emerge in tandem with an airy-voiced score. The resulting Lion King-esque assemblage of dragons elevates Toothless as a mythical hero and clues Hiccup to realizing that he may need to set his friend free.
Hidden World concludes with the same emotional heft as a film like Aladdin, along with a nostalgic final scene. While the film falters from an anti-climactic feeling — as the stakes never match what should conclude a franchise — there are enough enjoyable aspects: the jokes, Toothless, and one’s overall connection to these characters — to enjoy a sincere and delightful film like How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.