I find that the hardest reviews to write are for films which can only be described as good. They’re competently made and mostly interesting, with a few problems and a few moments of brilliance. And…that’s about it–they’re fine. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is, in a word, good.
Hidden World brings us back to the Viking land of Berk, where Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) serves as the unlikely chief of his people. The community of Berk is now a near-utopian blend of human and dragon symbiosis, with Hiccup and his pals–Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)–alongside his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) liberating captured dragons from Viking traders. With so many incoming dragons, Berk has become dangerously overcrowded. Moreover, the frustrated traders hire a dragon hunter, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), to kill Hiccup’s Night Fury, Toothless, and thus ruin Berk’s idyllic way of life. With both the overcrowding and Grimmel’s threats, Hiccup decides it’s time for the Berkians to strike out for the legendary “Hidden World” at the edge of the sea where they can make a new home for both dragons and humans alike. Whether this Hidden World exists is anyone’s guess.
Better than the second, but nowhere near as enchanting as the original, the third (and likely final) installment in the How to Train Your Dragon saga is mostly conventional storytelling with bursts of visual beauty and wonder. The detail in the animation is the strongest I’ve seen in these films. Swarms (flocks? herds?) of dragons in flight outlined against the sky never cease to amaze. Yet there are also smaller moments–a handful of sand, mist from a waterfall, lighting in a storm cloud–which highlight the animators’ keen attention to detail. The design of the various dragons is also impressive, and it’s fun to see some new species in action. When we’re finally taken to see the dragons’ hidden realm, its worth the wait–the colors and world-building are just breathtaking, and the entire sequence elicits moments of genuine awe. So it’s a bit disappointing that these scenes of flight and fancy are so few, and that many of the action sequences take place under the foggy cover of night. I wanted to see the beauty, but the film often chooses to forgo vibrance for darkness, exposition, or attempts at humor.
Its in these latter aspects–the plot and the comedy–where Hidden World drags on. Where the original How to Train Your Dragon was a classic boy-and-his-dog story, much of this film is devoted to the romance between Toothless and a female “Light Fury” dragon which is somehow being used by Grimmel as bait. (How Grimmel controls the Light Fury–really, most of Grimmel’s plans and motives–make little sense upon reflection.) The dragon romance (and its parallel in Hiccup and Astrid) is fairly traditional, a boy-meets-girl story where an awkward/inadequate male woos the independent/capable female, the latter in improbable adoration of the former; the Nerd somehow wins the Beauty. While both dragon and human couples are celebrated as equal co-rulers of their respective species, Hiccup and Toothless are still the protagonists here while the ladies are in supporting roles. That’s fine, I suppose, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Then there’s the humor: Hiccup’s pals are played up for laughs and given far too much screen time here, and few (if any) of the jokes work. My theater full of kids and parents was pretty silent, even during a *very* long scene with Wiig’s captured Ruffnut annoying Grimmel until he lets her go.
In my review of HTTYD2, I wrote, “Should a third film arrive in this series–and it likely will–I hope the filmmakers will lose the dragon battles and emphasize the power of love, humility, and self-sacrifice found in the original film.” Despite its narrative and humor issues, I think Hidden World achieves this, particularly in the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, the heart of this series. Their love is tested in numerous ways over the course of the film, and the resolution feels satisfying, with an appropriate pathos and poignancy. In short, it’s a good film and a good coda for a good animated trilogy.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2386490/