how to train your dragon the hidden world review

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World feels like the end. And that is a blessing for the film, which wraps up its narrative threads so neatly that it is as smooth as the scales on the backs of the DreamWorks franchise’s titular dragons. While it’s not quite the swan song that the franchise — which started with the near-perfect 2009 film How to Train Your Dragon — could have had, The Hidden World never falters in delivering the raw, emotional power and arresting visuals (and yes, the tears) that the series is known for.

Dean DeBlois returns to direct the third entry in the franchise, which picks up one year after the defeat of Drago, the villainous dragon hunter of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has transformed his scrappy Viking village of Berk into a thriving dragon and human utopia, but one that suffers from overcrowding as Hiccup and Toothless continue to rescue captured dragons from hunters. Unfortunately, Berk’s prosperity has also made it a massive target for dragon hunters, including a group of warlords who seek to fulfill Drago’s dream of amassing an army of dragons. To achieve their goals, they recruit infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham, in a wonderfully sinister performance) to defeat Hiccup and capture Toothless once and for all.

The narrative is a little thin for the emotional weight that it carries. Though it’s a natural next step in the escalation in the dragon and human conflicts, it also hits many of the same beats as How to Train Your Dragon 2: the villain is a ruthless dragon hunter who also uses dragons for his own purposes, Berk is threatened, everyone wants a piece of Toothless. But the real meat of this film is in the fraying of Hiccup and Toothless’ relationship as the discovery of a female Light Fury draws the dragon away from his longtime best friend.

The emotional and narrative backbone of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise has always been Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship. Their codependency and Hiccup’s own self-confidence being rooted in that relationship has remained a fascinating thread through the How to Train Your Dragon series, and The Hidden World finally gets to truly explore that. Their story is more than just that of “a boy and his dog” or however many iterations we’ve seen throughout the years; it’s something much deeper and unspoken. So to see them drift apart is almost more tragic than the brief moment of mind-controlled betrayal that we saw in How to Train Your Dragon 2. This is a deterioration that is more natural, and thus more unavoidable: that of best friends getting separated by the bittersweet ravages of time, and of growing up.

It’s when the film swings its focus on that relationship, that The Hidden World starts to soar — otherwise the film begins to feel as overcrowded as the village of Berk and its too many dragons. Outside of Hiccup and Toothless, the vast number of beloved supporting characters just begin to feel unnecessary. Even Valka (Cate Blanchett), who was given such importance in the second film, is relegated to a wise word of advice every now and then, and maybe one and a half cool action sequences. The exception to this is Astrid (America Ferrara) who is stronger when united with Hiccup, as opposed to her separate storyline that she received in the last film. It’s rare to see a sweet, healthy romance developed over the course of 10 years in an animated film, and both Baruchel and Ferrara make it look organic.

That’s not to say that I don’t love the colorful ensemble that we grew up with. It’s so easy to fall back in with these wacky characters, as shown right off the bat in the thrilling opening sequence, which moves lightning-quick between action and comedy as Hiccup and company raid a ship of dragon hunters. The characters’ easy camaraderie and the screwball humor of the films is in the DNA of the How to Train Your Dragon series. But then the jokes keep coming. And coming. By the third or fourth beat on a recurring joke (did we need that many beard jokes from Tuffnut?), it starts to become real old, real fast. I’m not opposed to a little levity, but it does sometimes throw off the tone of the film — preceding an epic, nearly operatic fight sequence between Hiccup and Grimmel with a silly bit about rotund baby dragons.

But the comedy never takes away from the greatest strengths of the film, which aside from its sheer emotional power, remain in the dazzling, atmospheric visuals. Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to consult on The Hidden World, which somehow manages to upstage the already gorgeously cinematic first and second films. The flight sequences continue to be absolutely breathtaking, while the new setting of the “Hidden World” contains some of the most ethereal animation that the series has pulled off. The camera has never been so delightfully mobile, the colors never so exquisite, and it’s all accentuated by John Powell’s sweeping score.

The visuals excel too in the great stretches of dialogue-less scenes between Toothless and the Light Fury. It recalls the brilliant physical chemistry in WALL-E, which took its cues from silent films and Buster Keaton-esque slapstick to create a full-bodied romance. Toothless and the Light Fury’s scenes are charming and funny in the same way, taking its sweet time to build their uncertain courtship as they dance and purr at each other. It gives the film a refreshing break from its narrative, and remind us of why we fell in love with dragons in the first place.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not a perfect movie, but it’s a perfect ending. There’s an inevitability to The Hidden World, whose narrative is barreling toward one, and only one, destination: emotional devastation. But the result is something a little more nuanced and tender than that. The Hidden World isn’t “big.” It doesn’t offer a shattering emotional moment, it doesn’t tear your heart in pieces. Instead, it tugs at your heartstrings and gently guides you to the finish line of a wondrous, lovely franchise that was more than we deserved.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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