The “How to Train Your Dragon” series has become a defining animated franchise for a generation starting with the first film in 2010, continuing with the second movie in 2014 as well as a television series and now concluding (supposedly) with the final film this weekend in 2019, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”. Fun fact all three films were also released under different studio banners (Paramount, Fox and Universal) due to the changing hands of DreamWorks over the last ten years. Anyways few franchises can say they truly defined a single generation’s understanding of a genre and storytelling. The “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise is one that can as it spans nearly ten years and earned three Academy Award nominations in that time. The first two films were critical darlings putting a lot of pressure of the final entry to complete this series solidly and cement the trilogy in the history books as one of cinema’s best. How well does this final movie live up to those expectations? Let’s find out. This is my review of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”.
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” takes place a year after the events of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and sees Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) taking to his role as chief after helping defend Berk from Drago and the Bewilderbeast. With Hiccup and crew continuing to free enslaved dragons and Toothless acting as the Alpha, Berk has become somewhat overrunned with dragons of all shapes and sizes making the civilization a bigger target for dragon hunters and warlords alike. When a new enemy, legendary dragon hunter Grimmel the Gisly (F. Murray Abraham) is hired by warlords to capture Toothless, he attempts to draw out the dragon with a Light Fury, the female equivalent of Toothless’ species. Grimmel drives the Berkians out of their land forcing them to fins a new home. As Toothless and the Light Fury bond Hiccup and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) set out to find the Hidden World, a mythical dragon sanctuary, before Grimmel can hunt them down.
Just like the other two films in the series, “The Hidden World” contains plenty of charm and memorable characters that draw us right back in to the world of Berk and the Dragon Riders. A lot of the same voice cast returns from previous movies save for T.J. Miller who was replaced due to numerous controversies since the second film. While a lot of the secondary characters got some great development in past installments I was impressed how evenly the cast seemed to be in the spotlight. I admittedly didn’t watch the television series and putting more focus on the characters was likely an effect of the ensemble cast that was delved into on the shows. It feels like a breath of fresh air in this film where the major characters were more of the focus in the past two movies. Everyone feels like they have grown and get their own punch lines to help them stand out to the point where they even directly impact the plot or Hiccup’s growth as a leader. Yet the focus is still very much on Hiccup and Astrid whose relationship is still charming and fun to watch, balancing and complimenting each other more than ever before. The entire cast seems to be enjoying embracing their characters one final time making the ride that much more fun for viewers like us to embrace.
One of the things I’ve always loved about this franchise is its visuals and style. We’ve seen many different dragons presented on the big screen in the franchise and “The Hidden World” only further builds on the variety of these creatures while embracing and improving on the fantastic animation that made the first two films such eye candy. “The Hidden World” is beautiful especially when we finally get to visit the titular dragon sanctuary that brings out the very best the animators could provide. Fresh features and designs to dragons both new and old provide something unique for anyone to appreciate. While I can’t say whether or not the show offered these same new elements, when comparing it to the other two films “The Hidden World” feels more colorful and magical than its predecessors even if it kind of forsakes these elements for more familiar settings that are less colorful but still just as beautifully rendered. Even then “The Hidden World” feels fresh, fun and is visually stunning. The new dragons introduced have unique abilities and designs and we even get to see Toothless try out a few new techniques of his own. It really feels like we’re seeing the culmination of years of world building here and I thoroughly enjoyed both the new and the familiar concepts explored.
And speaking of concepts while “The Hidden World” isn’t a necessarily deep narrative it does touch on some neat real-world themes like prejudice, the pressures of expectations and the pain of letting go as well as the often destructive relationship between man and beast. While these concepts are important to the film none of them overpower the story to the point of being annoying or unbearable. In fact many are touched on only slightly while still being prominent enough and clear enough for younger viewers to get the point. The concept of letting go though is a hard hitting and most relevant theme as Hiccup has to deal with the real possibility of losing Toothless to the dragon’s affection for the Light Fury. It’s an important and powerful message handled tastefully and appropriately especially when you look art the bigger picture and consider this is our chance to say goodbye to these characters and this world on the big screen. Despite being a cliché idea tackled in numerous movies before it (“Toy Story 3” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” just to name a few) “The Hidden World” still manages to capture this powerful reality of life in a way that resonates and even gave me a few delightful goosebumps as the story took shape. Whether your a parent or a child you will appreciate the bond that Toothless and Hiccup have come to share and, without spoiling anything, the final moments feel like we get to see this relationship come full circle.
The irony of being such a good film in a franchise of near perfection is that you can be both great and the worst film in the series at the same time. For me I think that describes “The Hidden World” perfectly. I love all three movies in this franchise, but “The Hidden World” for me is the weakest entry and I’ll tell you why. For me it all comes down to the villain. The main antagonist in this picture is F. Murray Abraham’s Grimmel the Grisly and, to put it bluntly, he’s forgettable. I dare say he’s the most forgettable villain in all three of the films despite being a legitimately intimidating bad guy. Grimmel feels like a villain for the sake of having a villain. He’s interesting to a degree but his role in the story feels more like a way to force conflict into the narrative and present a roadblock to the characters rather than add anything new to the franchise. His character development is barely touched on and his motives and evil nature are nothing we haven’t see from characters in this franchise before. He’s a dragon hunter who wants to kill the Night Fury. In fact he is responsible for Toothless being the last known male Night Fury alive. That’s about all the development he gets. He is intimidating in his own right and F. Murray Abrahams does a fine job with the character but for me there’s little to help Grimmel stand out especially when the first two main enemies were massive dragons and the far more intimidating Drago. It doesn’t help that the final battle scene feels ridiculously simple and short on stakes. You could have made humanity in general the basic villain here and had all of the different factions of dragon hunters prepare to take down Burk instead of one single person leading the charge. Then you would have had a more fitting and frightening foe for Hiccup and crew to face instead of just a single man. Even though we’re shown numerous times that Grimmel is always one step ahead by the time the final battle comes around it feels like an add on and it’s ridiculously short for the climax to a third entry in a series filled with massive set pieces and confrontations. Thankfully the villain and conflict with the warlords takes a backseat to the more heartfelt story, but it’s still a blemish that keeps “The Hidden World” from reaching the same heights as its predecessors.
Even with a forgettable villain though it’s hard to deny “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a great conclusion to an amazing generation-defining animated trilogy. It has its problems sure, and in my opinion is the worst of the three movies. But as I said, when you’re the worst of greatness you’re still great in the end. Beautifully animated, endearing and driven by an effective and charming emotional core that tackles the pain of goodbyes and the seemingly innate inability for mankind to find peace with the world around it “The Hidden World” rises above its errors to conclude one of the greatest trilogies of the decade and one of the best animated trilogies in history. It’s even worth me revising my “Greatest Trilogies of All Time” series from last year to give it its proper dues. Like the two films that came before it, this high flying adventure into a world of fantasy brings out the best in DreamWorks and serves as a fitting conclusion to what I think is the studio’s best franchise. While it would be nice to continue to see where this series could go, I’m hoping this truly is the final chapter because, as this film so fittingly teaches us, all good things must come to an end and as sad as that might be greater adventures await on the horizon, but we’ll always have great memories of the past to tide us over. “The Hidden World” is an awesome finale to an awesome series that I highly recommend.