While every studio is tripping over themselves to kick-start the next blockbuster franchise before the first film is even cast, the How to Train Your Dragon crew has been building an engaging family fantasy/adventure trilogy (loosely based on the novels of Cressida Cowell) over the last ten years. The first movie was a pleasant surprise—it not only avoided Dreamworks’ then-prevalent animated family fare formula of tongue-in-cheek humor and pop-culture references, but built on its source material in a way that created a distinct fantasy world that any fan of the genre, child or adult, could enjoy. At its core, the story of Viking teen Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriending a rare dragon called Toothless and learning to get along with dragons in a culture that feared and hunted them was a tender allegory on young adults paving their own way in life while standing up to tradition they deem to be wrongheaded.
After a second installment that expanded on the story’s lore while raising the emotional and physical stakes for our heroes, the third movie brings the story’s allegory on the growing pains of teenage to adulthood full circle, as Hiccup, the respected chieftain of his people, contends with his own independence as an adult while facing with the prospect that his connected-at-the-tail friendship with Toothless might be coming to an end.
More specifically, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World revolves around Hiccup trying to find a new location that would keep the people of Berk and their dragons safe. After spending years rescuing dragons from captivity, the townspeople are understandably worried that the dragon poachers will soon retaliate, so Hiccup takes it upon himself to find the mythical Hidden World where humans and dragons can live in peace. Meanwhile, Toothless falls in love with a female night fury (dubbed a “light fury” thanks to her bright white skin). The new love interest is joined by a new antagonist, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), the greatest dragon hunter in the world. (Grimmel looks so much like Roger Stone that I half-expected to see a Viking Richard Nixon tattoo on his back.) Grimmel’s a refreshing villain for the series because he doesn’t have any ideological hang-ups or world-dominating plans—he just loves his job of killing dragons.
Though the addition of the “white Toothless” feels at first like a cynical move by the studio to boost toy sales, her introduction actually becomes key to Hiccup and Toothless coming to terms with their upcoming need for independence as they take the next steps in their development. (And, to invoke the classic reaction GIF, why not both?)
The developing rift—or perhaps it’s more precise to call it “drift”—between Hiccup and Toothless that provides the overall narrative glue for the film’s series of breathtaking action set pieces might provide a bittersweet tone for fans of the series. Yet it also captures the bittersweet experiences we all face when we take our final steps into adulthood. After all, every decent myth should come equipped with something tangible the audience can take and relate to within their lives, lest it prove just empty spectacle. Writer/director Dean DeBlois seems well aware of this and sticks the landing with a tearjerking and emotionally empowering finale that focuses entirely on the characters.
That doesn’t mean the spectacle is lacking. The visual majesty of this Viking utopia, full of foggy mountains and the clear blue sea as far as the eye can see get yet another upgrade with some new breathtaking locations. This includes the titular Hidden World, a dragon paradise located at the “end of the world.” There’s also an intense third act battle against pirate ships that rivals most live-action fare geared toward older audiences.
The Hidden World has its flaws. Dean DeBlois’ script can’t figure out what to do with characters left over from previous episodes. (Hiccup’s discovery of his long lost mother, voiced by Cate Blanchett, was a major plot point in the second film, but the character is relegated to being the punch line of a creepy running gag where one of hiccup’s friends keeps hitting on her.) And there are aspects of Grimmel’s plans that smack of “brilliant because the script declares it so” short cuts. Yet these are just small nitpicks for such a solid conclusion to such an endearing franchise. Given it success, it seems unlikely this will be the last film from the land of Berk and beyond. But as a closing chapter in the tale of Hiccup and Toothless, The Hidden World ends this portion of the tale on a satisfying note.
Director: Dean DeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill
Release Date: February 22, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.