There’s a sense of finality that hangs over every moment of How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. The balance that Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his high flying gang of villagers and dragons have built over the years is starting to tip. The film makes very little effort to hide this, very overtly pointing us to the sunset that our characters will be flying into. It doesn’t want its audience of kids and kids at heart to worry that things are going to end badly, it wants them to savor the journey. It’s a unique strategy, especially for a franchise that has spent the last decade building a dense lore through film and television that many have fallen head over heels for.
The adventure centers on Hiccup’s battle against Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a ruthless dragon hunter hellbent on finishing his lifelong quest to kill every Night Fury dragon. As Grimmel overtakes the village of Berk, Hiccup’s mettle as a leader is tested. The people of Berk must find a new home, and it seems unclear exactly where they home may lie. Could it be on another uncharted island in the middle of the ocean, or within a mysterious dragon haven that has yet to be found? Meanwhile, Toothless encounters a “white fury” who becomes the apple of his eye, leaving Hiccup to wonder if Toothless will be man’s best friend for much longer.
Franchise mastermind Dean DeBlois takes a very odd approach in crafting this story. He has the typical impulse to give every single character as much screen time as possible. The entire motley crew of side characters who hung out in the background of the previous films are given much more time here. That’s a blessing and a curse, depending on who we’re talking about. For every wonderful emotional beat with important characters like Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and Valka (Cate Blanchett), we’re also treated to painfully unfunny quipfests from Snotlout (Jonah Hill) Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Ruffnut (Justin Rupple subbing in for T.J. Miller). Astrid (America Ferrera) is sidelined once again, even if her endearing relationship with Hiccup does provide some of the film’s most tender moments. Thankfully, the voice cast is uniformly excellent even if some of them are given lame material. Baruchel does a wonderful job anchoring it all, perfectly selling Hiccup’s ever evolving maturity that fits his empathy and ingenuity like a glove.
However, where most final installments will overcomplicate the plot to make room for all of these moving pieces, The Hidden World suffocates them under a very simple plot. Our villain is a retread of the one from the last film, and like that one, he hangs out in the background most of the time. Thus, ninety five percent of our cast spends the film waiting around on an island for the climax to start. No matter who we’re spending time with, we’re revolving around the same few conversations and nobody has a particularly unique prospective on this very cut and dry situation. They’re all very passive, only occasionally jumping into action when we need an set-piece.
The film does come to life in a big way when it zeroes in on Toothless and his newfound love. Toothless has always been a beautifully animated and deeply expressive creature, and giving him another one to play off of does wonders. The silent sequences between the two dragons play like a slightly goofier version of Wall-E’s first hour, with some visually stunning airborne ballet sealing the deal with grace and wonder. If anything, I wish there was more of it, as it is the only major payoff to separating him from Hiccup for most of the film.
The evolution of this series’ animation over the course of the past decade has been astonishing. This is an absolutely gorgeous film with impeccable attention to detail. Every creature, piece of architecture, weapon and vista leaps off the screen. This is a fully formed and deeply developed world. These details translate into some impressive flight and fight sequences that feel ripped from a live action blockbuster. The battles have an old school swashbuckling vibe that is both high energy and low intensity, allowing people of any age to get wrapped up in the spectacle.
Then, there’s the wrap up itself. While the rest of the film is a mixed bag, the final ten minutes is an absolute slam dunk. It’s a bittersweet ribbon to top off an iconic franchise that leaves us smiling with tears in our eyes. If anything, it seems like the entire film was haphazardly stitched together just to get to these golden moments.
Even though it’s by far the weakest entry in the franchise, there is certainly some wonder to be found The Hidden World. It’s visually stunning, has some engrossing character work, and ties it together with a killer ending. Shame that the majority of the second act is so wonky, with glacial pacing and an unfocused script often detracting from the story’s most engrossing elements. I do suspect that those misgivings do partially come from me being less engrossed in the story to begin with. If you’ve been in love with these characters from day one, there’s little doubt that watching them fly off into the sunset will light a fire in your heart.