Time was, I used to see a lot more animated films per year — partly because my son was once a youngster with lower standards, and partly because good animated films used to come out more frequently. Or maybe that’s the middle-aged fogey in me talking.
To this day the original How to Train Your Dragon — an imaginative, action-packed flight of fantasy with a gut-punch of a climax — remains my favorite Dreamworks Animation project to date. The first sequel wasn’t bad, but never addressed the deadbeat-mom issue at its center to my satisfaction. Five years after How to Train Your Dragon 2 the trilogy concludes with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World — a definitive ending to the saga of Jay Baruchel’s awkward young Viking Hiccup and his fierce, loyal dragon partner Toothless. I nearly typed “pet”, but that descriptor is a bit reductive and and refuted by this very movie itself.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Our Hero Hiccup is now leader of his weirdly Scottish Viking clan as well as the dragons who live in their midst, serving them and accompanying them into battle. Everything’s a happy viking/dragon paradise. Hiccup is getting strong hints that it’s time for him and his longtime girlfriend Astrid (once again, Superstore‘s America Ferrara) to tie the knot and do all the other things expected of kings. His other partner, Toothless the vaunted Night Fury, may have found true love as well. Though his species was thought extinct, an all-white female Night Fury has just turned up and caught his interest. Best-case scenario, the film is just ninety minutes of double-dating, then double wedding, then The End.
Pretty cool idea, till evil rears its ugly head. Academy Award Winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus, Star Trek: Insurrection) adds another accent to his repertoire as a big-time dragon hunter who wants all dragons under his thumb Or Else, has his sights set on Toothless, and, for value-added evil measure, boasts about how he’s the guy who hunted Night Furies to near-extinction. BOOOOOOOOOO.
Some think it’s time for one last dragon war. Hiccup comes to a different realization: it’s time for the dragons to move on. Man’s world is not the best place for them, and legend tells of a faraway place dragons call home, a magical land of whimsy and wonder and dragons being dragons instead of being trophies or St. George’s adversaries. That’s where the dragons need to be.
And so it’s time for one last ride. And everyone saddles up.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond Baruchel and Ferrara, other Scottish Vikings returning for one last hurrah include Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, blacksmith Craig Ferguson, David Tennant (reprising his tiny role from the first one), Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington (I’m struggling to remember him from the second one), Cate Blanchett as Hiccup’s mom (so underutilized that I’m shocked she said yes), and, for one last flashback, Gerard Butler as Hiccup’s late, great dad.
Noticeably not returning: T.J. Miller, removed due to various legal, behavioral, and #MeToo issues, to put it mildly. His replacement is comedian Justin Rupple.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Yay friendship! And dragons!
- Hunters can be really mean and unscrupulous
- Some animals past a certain level of intelligence and/or superpowers weren’t really meant to be mankind’s property
…otherwise the entire point is more dragons. More dragon flights, dragon fights, dragon slapstick, dragon breath types (more than just fire! Check the old Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks!), dragon species in general, and, of course, one last big-screen party with the dragons that your kids have grown up with ever since Hiccup and Toothless entered our lives in 2010. The trailers bill this as a conclusion, and it’s very much that, as it gets to the heart of the most pressing question of all: Why Aren’t There Dragons Now?
Nitpicking? If the bare-bones plot sounds familiar, that’s because “large group of bygone animals leave dangerous land to search for new home” was the basis of at least sixty-four out of sixty-eight films in The Land Before Time series, not to mention some Ice Age sequels and Disney’s forgotten Dinosaur. They’ve merely added lots of extra wings, fire-breathing, and Salieri with a crossbow. And they subtracted the musical numbers — no happy lizards singing about friendship or whatever. If it weren’t for the film’s technical proficiency and reuse of familiar faces and voices as viewer bait, this could’ve been as forgettable as a lot of other Dreamworks Animation films. Like, Shark Tale or Turbo-level forgettable.
Speaking of forgettable: a key scene late in the film reveals all our teen dragonriders have their own flying suits. I’m left wondering whether that’s straight-up deus ex machina or if those were introduced in the second film and my memory decided they weren’t worth retaining.
So what’s to like? By “technical proficiency” up there, I mean to say parts of The Hidden World are among the most beautiful scenes Dreamworks has ever released. Setting aside an opening sequence buried in nighttime and rendered unto murk (which never turn out well in our theater, whose employees don’t understand their own lighting system), much of the proceedings here take a lot of chances that pay off — scenes set in low-light conditions in the midst of sunrise/sunset are bathed in hues rarely attempted by CG art teams. The eventual arrival at Here There Be Dragons Town is a dizzying, scintillating panorama of natural and supernatural lights that aims to give Pixar’s Coco a run for its money. Some of the credit might be owed to guidance from fourteen-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (who FINALLY won for Blade Runner 2049), who’s been a visual consultant for the complete trilogy, but respect is owed to all the artists involved in such outstanding work.
Everything else adds up to a competent, frequently great-looking sequel, an apropos send-off for some of the best dragon cartoons ever, and one last fun time with Jay Baruchel in the greatest role of his career. Hiccup’s early days struck so many familiar chords for me that…well, I wish his grand finale were closer to mind-blowing, but as trilogies go, I’m deep-down happy he got a better final fate than Frodo did.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World end credits, but in those credits each department’s section gets a cute header in the form of a tiny cartoon Scotsman demonstrating what their department does. For kids it could be a fun way to teach them Hollywood stuff, introduce them to new career tracks, maybe even inspire them to grow up and help make new dragon movies. I’ll take dragons over Emoji, Trolls, or Minions anytime.