Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Dean DeBlois
Writer: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, F. Murray Abraham
As an animation studio, DreamWorks’ crown of jewels is adorned with some fairly faded stones. Sure, Shrek was a real hit in its heyday, but unlike the earlier works of rival Pixar, “dated” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Shark Tale was at least dated – if not dead – on arrival. Don’t even get me started on Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.
It’s a bit odd, honestly. This is the same studio that produced The Prince of Egypt, my favorite animated film of all time and what I think can be objectively considered one of the best animated films ever made. They also made powerful technical and artistic in-roads with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, but if many had to pin the death of traditional hand-drawn animation on any one film, it would be Shrek. Irony.
Thankfully, within the mire of mediocrity with such largely forgettable titles like Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Turbo, and Megamind, there was the strong, beating heart of How to Train Your Dragon, a Norse-inspired boy-and-his-dog tale with a solid sense of world-building, fun characters, grand stories, and confident writing.
I’ve stated before anything can be ruined by overexposure, and with two feature releases and at least two Netflix series’ with multiple seasons, a good case could be made that what is undeniably the finest jewel in DreamWorks’ crown at present should perhaps be put to rest. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World promises something of an “end of the road” tale. All good stories must come to an end. Let’s see how this one fares.
Violence/Scary Images: Some of the dragons — particularly in the opening and climactic sequences, along with the dragon training scenes — are scary looking and cause a lot of destruction. The dragons have burned down homes, killed random characters, and maimed a couple of central characters. The huge “queen dragon” is big and imposing, and is just as likely to swallow a smaller dragon as she is to crush humans in her way.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Mild flirting and two brief kisses between Astrid and Hiccup. Very mild hints of possible homoeroticism.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Spiritual Content: Some passing references to Old Norse polytheism
Other Negative Themes: Some depictions of animal abuse
Positive Content: Hiccup’s actions prove cooperation and teamwork can be better than competition and animosity. By looking past the superficial, Hiccup discovered the dragons weren’t the blind, ruthless killers his people thought they were, and training a dragon had far more benefits than killing a dragon. Another important message is the love between a parent and child is unconditional and not based on whether the child is following in the parent’s footsteps. There’s also the message girls and women (the Vikings are surprisingly pro-girl-power) can be tough and fearless too, and brains can be just as powerful as brawn.
Hiccup may not look as tough as other Vikings his age, but he’s smart, courageous, and caring. His eventual popularity and sacrifice to save his fellow Vikings demonstrate just because someone looks like a “wimp” doesn’t mean much. Astrid is a positive role model for girls. Yes, she’s beautiful, but it’s not her looks that make her notable. She’s tough, hard-working, fearless, and loyal. Characters also demonstrate integrity and perseverance.
Trilogies are a remarkably conventional format for the cinema, aren’t they? The three-act structure marries well with the average length of a standard feature film (roughly 30 min per act), and has been typical for the medium since the beginning. The trilogy also enables the story to pad its various meta arcs out into a longer format where the more episodic arcs dare not tread.
It has been argued quite convincingly Pixar’s Toy Story could be ranked as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made. Perhaps it should be considered for the title of greatest, period. Not only was there a poignant meta-arc to the entire breadth of the series, but each installment also managed its thread in the greater tapestry with finesse, reverence, and aplomb. One can easily enjoy each title as a stand-alone project, while also recognizing and appreciating how they contributed to something larger than the sum of their parts.
The first film centered on Buzz Lightyear coming to terms with his identity as a child’s plaything. In the second film, Woody had to come to terms with the fact being a child’s plaything meant his time with said child was coming to an end. After polishing such vibrant and brazen rounds loaded with the unapologetically existential message “nothing lasts forever,” there really wasn’t much left to do in the third go around except to aim and fire.
With the third and final installment of DreamWorks’ highly venerated How to Train Your Dragon series now released, a similar overarching ideal seems to permeate the animated fantasy. Based on the children’s book series authored by Cressida Cowell, the first film centered on a rather unconventional Black Stallion-inspired tale of a young viking chief’s son named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) coming to build a symbiotic relationship with Toothless, a fierce, obsidian-scaled flying dragon of a very rare breed. The unexpectedly gripping 2010 film ended with a new era of unity between man and beast, with our two heroes learning such bonds come at a significant price.
The somewhat less impactful 2014 sequel was handled exclusively by writer-director Dean Dublois, who had worked in tandem with Chris Sanders on the first movie, and made some maneuvers into darker territory for the series with critical alterations in the characters’ view on their place in the world and how to respond to it. Hiccup had to come to terms with the fact his typical approach of diplomacy to foreign invaders had some fatal weaknesses, pushing him to actually cowboy up and draw blood. I did find the addition of a single-minded villain with a dominance obsession paled in comparison to what was on offer before.
The primary threat in How to Train Your Dragon was something so primordial and uncanny it became something both more and less than a mere conventional antagonist. It was more since simple military tactics prove largely futile against a force of nature, but less since it had no motivation, save for primal instinct. With that said, aside from Djimon Hounsou’s remarkable shoot-for-the-moon vocal performance, How to Train Your Dragon 2’s Drago Bludvist left quite a bit to be desired in regard to motive and development.
Oddly enough, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (or simply How to Train Your Dragon 3 as it’s known internally at the studio) carries on with blind disregard for the Netflix programs that have been in production between the main films’ releases. While this is understandable, it may have helped to provide some context to the situation we come across first in this production, in which the human-dragon co-existence utopia appears to be coming apart at the seams. Honestly, that alone would have been enough to initiate a fairly compelling story even without the obligatory big bad villain that shuffles in later.
By way of family suggestion, I’ve been watching the Civilizations documentary series on Netflix. Making full use of Liev Schreiber’s narrating capabilities, the series explores the history of art and architecture throughout the span of human development. I was particularly fascinated by the ruins of citadels that were abandoned in places such as Aztec Mexico and Incan Peru. Upon seeing these massive fortifications reclaimed by nature with vines and other foliage twisting about the stone buildings, I got an image in my head of a grasshopper molting a skin it had outgrown. The cities could no longer accommodate the higher standard of living to which the people had become accustomed, and were left behind.
After having read upon so much from ideologues who champion cultural relics as sacrosanct badges of personal identity, the drama of the idealism versus the practicality of leaving what has been considered home for seven generations would have been a welcome thematic method of engagement here in Dublois’ film. Sadly, it isn’t the overpopulation of Berk that leads Hiccup to make the tough decision to leave for the fabled “Hidden World”. Instead, we have the introduction of Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon-killing warlord with a personal ambition to eradicate every last night fury still alive because that’s how he do.
As somewhat underwhelming as Drago Bludvist might have been, he had at least a rather compelling foundation to his character and drive. Grimmel, who bears an oddly youthful resemblance to Anton Ego from Pixar’s Ratatouille, doesn’t have much of a reason to be or do anything here except because the screenplay says so. With a few alterations, the story could have carried on just as well, if not better, without him or the egregious waste of Abraham’s talent. Well, whatever. There’s plenty of other dimensions to this story to unpack.
Hiccup and his childhood sweetheart Astrid (America Ferrera) seem to have had their relationship set back to zero. The two hem and haw about actually getting hitched and putting Hiccup’s chiefly duties to some practical use as though the last two movies’ worth of romantic involvement was all an act of some sort. It kind of took me out of the film for a good while, no matter how much the actors still give their most sincere and memorable deliveries.
Hiccup’s estranged mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), who became instantly iconic in the previous film through her mastery of human-dragon synergy, is sadly relegated to the background in this installment, hardly offering much of anything in the way of personal agency or even sagely insight to her tribe. The most significant thing that could be said about her now is she’s inadvertently caught the eye of Jonah Hill’s Snotlout, which leads to comedy bits that are slightly more awkward than amusing.
Hiccups’ other younger Viking pals get a few moments to bask in the spotlight with their quirks and shenanigans. Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) get the lion’s share of opportunities to make us laugh, with Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) getting the short end of the stick in most ways. While I’m on the subject, what the heck is up with Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and Eret Son of Eret (Kit Harington)?
Well, okay, I know perfectly well what’s going on there, but still. Dublois is openly gay, and so I’m not at all surprised to find subtle hints of possible future homoeroticism here. In all honesty, I’m surprised it was as subtle as it was. Mostly, it seems to have been written in such a way that one could legitimately interpret the interactions as not truly homoerotic at all and think nothing of the matter. I’m not sure whether to praise the restraint or criticize the selection at this point. Take it as you will, dear reader.
That’s especially impressive since this is definitively the end of the arc for this tale. Whatever gets established here will most likely not carry on into future installments. Okay, the odds of future projects either in theater or online streaming services is more likely than I thought at first, but the team here is clearly treating this with a great deal of finality. The heart of the story here, much like in the previous films, is the endearing but strained relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, and there is much to strain what they have together here.
As shown in the trailers, a major thread is the introduction of an even rarer ivory-colored female night fury (who Astrid affectionately dubs a “light fury”) over whom Toothless is immediately fascinated and smitten. One of the admirable creative decisions made for the world of these movies is there are no talking animals, so the scenes in which Toothless attempts to woo the light fury are played over absolutely arresting dialogue-free sequences of natural wonder and flight. These moments showcase some of the most stunning imagery I’ve seen in CGI animation recently, and they’ll be staying with me for some time. With John Powell once again managing the musical score, aesthetically speaking, this franchise has been given the most honorable sendoff.
Adding to the honor of said sendoff is a smattering of flashbacks to Hiccup’s earlier memories of his father Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) giving context to Hiccup’s seeking the titular “hidden world” as a new safe haven for both the dragons and people of Berk. These get transmogrified into a homily uneasily similar to Odin’s spiel in Thor: Ragnarok that “Asgard is a people, not a place” with similar deflations in the significance of their home being razed and left behind. From this, I should make a note “bittersweet” isn’t necessarily a token of praise for tonality.
With all that established, I can’t say this doesn’t serve as a worthwhile ending to a beloved film series that has been running for nearly a decade. Learning to let things come to an end is an especially difficult task for anyone, but it harbors a peculiar challenge for creative storytellers. Many have likened figuring out how to end a story to figuring out how to land from a flight – a task so difficult even birds mess up on occasion. After so many moving and transcendent flights taken with these characters, one wonders if coming back to earth is even viable. I would certainly like to think so, and with such an unforgettably grounded and solid ending, so would this film.