You’d think they’d have trained these dragons by now. It’s certainly been a while since How to Train Your Dragon opened nearly a decade ago, and the oft-delayed third installment of the Dreamworks animated film series seems to recognize that it’s here to close out the enterprise. There’s a curiously elegiac quality to The Hidden World, a gathering sense of finality that will surely move many who’ve been following these movies (and TV shows) over the years, especially since some of those viewers are probably not even kids anymore. But incidental watchers, and those who don’t have as much emotional investment in the stories (cough parents cough) might find themselves struggling a bit to keep up — and maybe even wondering what the big deal is.
But then again, this series has always asked a lot of its audience. The first one ended with the hero losing his leg, and the second featured the rather traumatic death of a major character amid all the animated magical-mystery shenanigans. In its quieter moments, this new film makes sure to evoke memories of that trauma, through somber flashbacks and visions. And, as with its predecessors, its mixture of high-flying dragon antics, medieval spectacle, goofy humor, and family melodrama is often an uneasy one.
You can sense that unease even in The Hidden World’s opening moments, in which our hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his fellow Vikings rescue a boat full of dragons from the clutches of a group of warriors planning to use the creatures in battle. The setpiece blends jokey slapstick with heavy-metal spectacle, as Hiccup and his pals fight the bad guys against foggy night skies alive with winged, fire-breathing beasts. The humor isn’t particularly original, but the imagery is striking — as if the movie wants to go darker and bigger, but keeps remembering that it also has to appeal to kids.
Though the book series by Cressida Cowell started in 2003, the first How to Train Your Dragon premiered in 2010, a few months after James Cameron’s Avatar, and possibly benefited from a marketplace eager for more colorful, otherworldly adventures in which brave, underdog heroes went into battle riding crazy monsters with giant wings. But the movie’s ethos was very much its own: When the meek, klutzy Hiccup, a chieftain’s son who hadn’t measured up to his warrior clan’s expectations, befriended Toothless, a rare breed of alpha dragon known as a Night Fury, what got us excited wasn’t the prospect of Hiccup ultimately transforming into a brave killer but the idea that his peaceful impulses would eventually win out against the burly bellicosity of his fellow Vikings.
Now, having become something of a tribal leader, Hiccup struggles with his responsibilities. His island village of Berk has become something of a refuge for dragons, and the film’s defining image may well be the eye-popping sight of these creatures — seemingly thousands of them, of all shapes, colors, sizes, and temperaments — soaring and swooping through this town. “A stunning, one-stop, all-expense-paid dream destination,” is how Hiccup playfully describes Berk. “Any run-of-the-mill paradise boasts beaches and sunshine. But not us. We’ve got something no one else can touch. We, my friend, have dragons. Lots and lots of dragons.” Not exactly sparkling dialogue, is it? But we don’t care about what he’s saying; the earnest grandeur of all these mythical beasts crowding the skies is entertainment enough.
However, Hiccup understands that his people and their scaly, flying friends will never know peace, because there are men out there who seek to exploit and even kill these magical creatures. Chief among these villains is Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham, sporting what sounds like a vaguely Eastern European accent), a storied dragon hunter determined to lure away Toothless and kill him, thus allowing the bad Vikings to exert control over the rest of the animals. Meanwhile, Hiccup remembers his father’s tales of a place called “the Hidden World,” a secret land beyond a waterfall at the edge of the world (cue jokes about the Earth being flat) where dragons can live in peace, away from human meddling.
This premise isn’t particularly original, but it does promise a kind of closure, and The Hidden World leans into that idea. Hiccup is thinking of settling down with his sweetheart Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera, and even Toothless gets to fall in love this time. Everybody’s growing up and thinking of leaving Hogwa — er, Berk. But even for that familiar setup to find some emotional purchase, you need an audience who engages with these characters. And despite the visual splendor of this movie — the beautifully animated creatures and elegantly imagined settings — what will ultimately determine whether you respond to this final How to Train Your Dragon is how well you remember the earlier entries. For some, it’ll be a moving conclusion to an epic series. For others, it’ll be one less kids’ franchise to worry about.