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“There were dragons when I was a boy.”
This is how Cressida Cowell’s 12-part book series How to Train Your Dragon starts, and is the phrase that attracted trilogy director Dean DeBlois to the project. It’s a phrase that has always, to the writer, clouded the film series in an air of melancholy and looming finality that was rarely found in animated films, especially those aimed primarily at youngsters. The sense that something so beautiful as the friendship portrayed in the How to Train Your Dragon film series could have an end, and what led to that end, was always something that fascinating me. The fact that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has been advertised as the finale of the trilogy had me very excited at the emotional possibilities of how everything would play out.
Suffice it to say that not only does The Hidden World prove to be just as good as the previous two entries, but may serve as the best of what feels like an underrated trilogy and one of the best animated trilogies of all time. The Dragon series has infinitely more emotional heft, quality animation, and technical expertise than some of the biggest animated films released, yet it’s never seemed to find the box office success that it deserves. Make no mistake, the movies have done fine, but in a world where Minions hits over $300 million and every godawful Shrek film has made more than any of the Dragon films, you can’t help but feel like people are just missing out on something truly great.
The Hidden World picks up one year after Part 2 (which was just named How to Train Your Dragon 2 with no subtitle, my biggest and maybe only complaint of the trilogy), with Hiccup serving as chief to the inhabitants of Berk and celebrating a peaceful coexistence with their dragon neighbors. Another group of marauding warlords want to take a shot at Hiccup and his dragon cohort Toothless, this time introducing the Light Fury, a female of Toothless’ race which was long thought extinct, to complicate matters further.
One of the impressive parts of this franchise is how it’s managed to bring all of its voice talent back for three movies, which is no easy feat. Franchise cornerstones Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera return as Hiccup and Astrid, respectively. Their characters have grown so much since the kids they were in the first film, and it feels like no other animated franchise takes into account time and growth to its characters the way Dragon does. Sure, the toys in Toy Story grow and change emotionally, but they’ve always looked the same. Hiccup and Astrid actually age throughout the films, both physically and emotionally. Not only that, but Hiccup serves as one of the shining examples of a main character with a disability who isn’t just about the disability. It’s another example of how the Dragon films are able to layer emotional effects on top of physical effects that its characters encounter.
Nearly every character returns here, with great voice work from Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig. TJ Miller, that of various controversies, is almost unnoticeably replaced by comedian/impressionist Justin Rupple, who gets plenty of room to work. F. Murray Abraham brings gravitas to the villain of the film, although the franchises strong points have never been its human villains. What’s important is that every voice performance is well-rounded in both comedic and dramatic moments, never playing to broad for a younger audience.
Speaking of well-rounded, the visuals in The Hidden World exceed the previous films by leaps and bounds. Obviously it has the advantage of being the newest film with the most advanced animation techniques, but beyond that, the settings, character work, and action sequences are layered and detailed in a way that is immensely impressive. The small details of realism are breathtaking, ranging from massive fantastical hidden dragon worlds to photo real sand on a beach.
The character designs of the film are still some of the best, and I am in constant marvel of how perfectly realized Toothless is as a character. It’s amazing that they could accurately combine the best parts of dogs and cats, put them in a dragon, and give that dragon an understandable and relatable level of intelligence and emotion.
One factoid that I found to be particularly interesting is that while Gil Zimmerman does a phenomenal cinematography work as the Head of Layout on the film, the great Roger Deakins served as a visual consultant for not only the Dragon franchise, but for a few other animated films as well. Having that level of talent on board to guide the visuals makes for some striking images in the film that are nothing short of iconic.
Building onto that iconography is another rousing score by John Powell, whose main themes of the franchise are some of the best pieces of film music maybe ever. His Academy Award nominated score for the original is built upon here with wonderful callbacks and additions that make you want to fly along with our heroes.
Perhaps the greatest asset of the Dragon franchise is the way it uses previously mentioned themes like growth, loss, and leadership in the storytelling. Over the course of three films, Hiccup and his friends have literally and figuratively grown before our eyes from delinquent kids to leaders of their community. The actual visual aging of the characters gives weight to their journeys and their decisions moving forward.
This weight plays in greatly in how the trilogy wraps itself up, and without getting to deep into spoilers, I’ll say that it is an emotionally charged finale that has been more than earned by the series. There’s a balance to the emotions of moving into the future, between the sadness you feel with having to move on and leave things behind, and the excitement and joy you get from newfound adventures in life. The Hidden World captures all of those emotions perfectly and, in all honesty, it had me rolling tears by the time the credits hit.
The Hidden World manages to have its cake and eat it too with the alleged final entry into the trilogy. I know well enough to never consider a franchise completely finished, but the way that they manage to wrap everything up is just so completely satisfying in a way that is rare in third entries. That being said, I don’t think I would find myself upset if we found ourselves returning back to the stories of Berk and the hidden dragon world once more.
The Final Pop
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World doesn’t just wrap up one of the best animated trilogies of all time, but it just may very well be the best of the series. From it’s gorgeous animation, fun and fully realized characters, and satisfyingly emotional conclusion, it soars above all else to end on the highest of notes.