The How to Train Your Dragon franchise is the DreamWorks Animation series that seems to be regularly forgotten amidst their pantheon of works, even though it remains probably their most consistently solid. Of course, Shrek is the one that put them on the map and will be forever remembered as their quintessential IP, even though it’s been eight years since its last entry with the spin-off Puss in Boots. Then there’s the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, which had a terrific first installment followed by decent if underwhelming sequels, that will remain in the public consciousness as Po serves as a secondary mascot for the company. Hell, even The Boss Baby seems to be getting more ironic love in the two years since its release. But the first two How to Train Your Dragon films were downright magical, proving that you don’t need to overwhelm your audience with lazy pop-culture references to get people to identify with the characters and ultimately tell a worthwhile story. Not to mention the first sequel did a stellar job at deepening the mythology behind its subject matter and challenging the growth of its central protagonists. And now that the final installment, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, has saved the early 2019 box office and reignited the cultural zeitgeist with interest in the franchise, I have to be the one to say that this is the one that continues the trend of DreamWorks sequels insofar that it’s still good but not the follow-up one would hope for given previous successes. Fortunately, I think the bare bones of the franchise is too dynamic with a kind of unparalleled imaginative innocence breathing vibrant life into its visuals that they probably couldn’t deliver a bad entry if they tried. So even if this trilogy capper doesn’t soar quite as high as its predecessors, it’s still a beautifully rendered diversion into the kind of animated fare that’ll have enough heart and humor to satisfy wide-eyed viewers of all ages.
In How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Berk has become inundated with dragons, to the point that this sanctuary has exceeded its own carrying capacity for the endangered species. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the newly appointed chief of the village, has decided for the vikings to relocate to a mystical haven known as “The Hidden World,” where dragons are said to live freely and without threat from humans. While Hiccup’s plan is met with some skepticism from the more traditional denizens, it is given further credence upon the arrival of infamous Night Fury hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who seeks to capture Toothless and use him as an alpha in the controlling of other dragons. So off they go in search of The Hidden World, along the way coming across a rare female Light Fury, whom Toothless fancies. But when it’s revealed that the Light Fury was released by Grimmel in a plot to isolate Toothless from Hiccup, Hiccup and the other Berkians must fight for their dragons’ freedom, even if it means freedom from humans altogether.
This is a very mature movie, one that will challenge audience expectation in what I deem to be a constructive way. Much in the same way that Toy Story 3 was able to veer from convention and give something viewers definitely didn’t expect but ultimately appreciated. So on that level, I have to applaud the writers behind The Hidden World for having the courage to tackle these themes without contrition and without spoon feeding it either. It respects the audience it’s aiming for and believes that they have the capacity to process and actually think and contribute. That said, I don’t know if the story beats reflect what this movie wants you to take away thematically, providing a denouement that doesn’t quite leave the story in a different place than where we originally found it. I’m doing my best not to spoil it, but the ending still doesn’t feel like it was the logical conclusion of what the first two set up. Now that I think about it, I almost feel like this series needed one more movie to get to where it ultimately ended up, but if this is the true end for Hiccup and Toothless, I guess I can live with what they gave us.
I think the true source of my relative disappointment with this one – aside from some lofty expectations – can be traced back to its inability to set itself apart aesthetically and plot-wise. The first film had a layered conflict which saw a young boy discover an unseen side to an enemy and challenge his people’s prejudices. The second deepened Hiccup’s family dynamic by reuniting him with his long-lost mother and pressuring him to take the place of his father, the leader, all whilst dealing with the threat of a dragon hunter assembling a brain-washed army and driving a wedge between Hiccup and Toothless. This one also sees Hiccup being pressured to be a good leader in the face of a dragon hunter assembling a brain-washed army by way of driving a wedge between Hiccup and Toothless. So, yeah, same old, same old, just repackaged in a different way. While the Light Fury angle does give Toothless something to do and aspire towards and does create a nice parallel with some of the character development Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid go through, it all essentially runs the same with previous story beats. Not to mention Grimmel is so generic he might as well be every other outside antagonist in the series.
Already I can draw comparisons to my reaction of this film and my reaction of one of 2018’s biggest hits, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which though technically impressive failed to distinguish itself from more recent entries, as solid as they all are. I think at the end of the day I was expecting How to Train Your Dragon to once again wow me with the kind of novel and heartfelt storytelling exemplified by the previous two installments, and though it certainly tries to with its conclusion, a lot of that gets lost in the shuffle of recycled characters and characterizations and what not. Which is almost more of a compliment than anything, for this and Mission: Impossible, seeing that I loved previous entries so much that I wanted to leave the next one with the same kind of wow factor. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that with this one, it never captured my spirit, but I don’t doubt its ability to capture the spirits of others.
So, you could do a whole lot worse than The Hidden World. At the end of the day, it’s still richly animated and retains plenty of enthusiasm in its humor to get the job done. I wouldn’t mind getting a fourth film, but if there’s anything Shrek taught us, that isn’t always a good idea.
Final Score: 7/10