If looks could kill, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World would engulf audiences in a deathly conflagration of dragon fire. The animated second sequel looks absolutely brilliant on the big screen, roaring to life in luscious detail. From the crystal-clear scale of its big set pieces to the minutia of the movement of sand and water, Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World splashes every penny of its 129 million dollar budget up on the screen for audiences to behold. If only they could have dumped equally as much energy and effort into the story mechanics, which are far and away the weakest of the three HTTYD films.
The story from writer-director Dean DeBlois feels oddly phoned in. Reserved. Uninspired. After reuniting with his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and taking on the mantle of chief after his father’s (Gerard Butler) sacrifice, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) finds himself at a crossroads. Flanked by compatriots Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple doing a bad TJ Miller impersonation), Hiccup is out to free dragons from the trapper’s cage. But when notorious dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) catches wind of the last living Night Fury, he makes it his sole purpose to track it down and kill it. Hiccup decides the only hope is to brave the unknown hunting for a hidden world where he believes dragons and humans can coexist peacefully. The first film in the How to Train Your Dragon series dealt in themes of tradition, the second in conscience and loyalty. Throughout the years, we witnessed Hiccup struggle with his cultural identity and discover his footing as a mediator between two worlds – that of a stubborn Viking community and powerful but loving dragons. The journey was complete with decadent world-building and emotionally-leveling character development, often ending in a pull out your handkerchief moment or two that delivered without fail.
This time around, everything seems muted. Gone is the misunderstood father-son dynamic that was the emotional core of the first two films, in its place, a noxious dump of side-character comedy that begins to wear on the audience almost immediately. More acreage is afforded to players like Tuffnut, Ruffnut, and Snotlout who replace the franchise’s heart-on-its-sleeve soulfulness with grating attempts at low-brow comedy. Hill, Wiig, and Rupple all adopt a different brand of annoying surfer bro dialect which has diminishing return from the second they open their mouths. I don’t recall being so annoyed in one of these movies before (though I did make mention of the comedy rarely connecting in the last one) and much of the blame can be cast at amplifying the role of these characters. On the one hand, this is a tactic to create a larger sense of community within the human portion of this hybrid civilization but it just does not work and has the opposite effect of wishing these characters turned to crisps.
If this final chapter singles out one narrative arc, it is about love and maturity; the virtue of letting go of the ones you love for the sake of their betterment. Throughout the three films, we’ve seen Hiccup and Toothless develop a master-pet relationship that in this film blooms into a surrogate father-son bond and the bulk of the emotional gravitas lies in Hiccup coming to terms with Toothless growing beyond the needs of a child/pet. Here, the pet becomes the alpha and develops a love interest of his own. The narrative developed between these characters is as strong as it has ever been and culminates in a fitting conclusion that respects both characters and their place within this world, even if the specifics of how we get there feels minor and without real stakes.
It doesn’t help that baddie Grimmel feels like a two-bit villain with bare bones motivation and the plot runs aground a number of logic gaps that DeBlois doesn’t feel obligated to fill in. No one comes to a How to Train Your Dragon movies for an intellectual exercise but the A-to-B-to-C movement of this third chapter never reveals anything truly special up its sleeve, nor smuggles any surprises along the way. It’s all rather straight-forward and minimalist, in stark opposition to the majestic technical work taking place behind-the-scenes.
There is admitted elegance to the simplicity of this story but that’s stolen away with so much witless, cloying comedy airdropped in. With a muted emotional palette to boot, the narrative offerings feel relatively meager. DeBlois can still stage a compelling animated set piece but there’s nothing that can compete with the massively-scaled alpha-on-alpha showdown of How to Train Your Dragon 2 nor does the film quite manage to elicit any soaring “I have to cry now” sidebars. It’s cute and it leaves the story in an admittedly “nice” place but it’s far from the hugely satisfying conclusion that a franchise like How to Train Your Dragon has long promised.
CONCLUSION: A bittersweet capstone to the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ trilogy boasts remarkable animation but a muted and surprisingly straight-forward story with fewer emotional highs and more comedic lows. A disappointing low point for the franchise.
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