In the year since his father (Gerard Butler) died and his mother (Cate Blanchett) returned from exile, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has assumed responsibility for Berk and rehabilitated hundreds more dragons from trappers across the known world. With the island now overpopulated and a new threat emerging in the form of Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the feared dragon killer responsible for the near-extinction of the Night Fury, Hiccup must reckon with his dream of peaceful cohabitation and determine whether that is truly in the best interests of both species. The answer might lie in the mythical Hidden World, a long-rumoured haven for dragon-kind, but when Toothless becomes distracted by a female ‘Light Fury’ Hiccup faces the challenge of finding it without his best friend’s help.
The How To Train Your Dragon series has never been your average animated fare. Treated more like live-action than animation, director Dean DeBlois and his dedicated team at DreamWorks Animation have consulted with experts in cinematography, physics and stereoscopy to make sure that the films pushed the boundaries of the medium — even if the characters themselves were more traditional in their design. This commitment to innovation has produced some of the most indelibly beautiful images in modern cinema, and as technology has advanced between films so too has the ambition of the filmmakers. DeBlois’ screenplays have evolved too, adapting elements of Cressida Cowell’s children’s books but being unafraid to explore new territory too, developing the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless as peers, making its protagonist an amputee and outing a secondary character as gay.
It’s easy to have faith in DeBlois to repeat his two previous successes and end the trilogy in a satisfying way. DreamWorks Animation appears to feel the same way, agreeing to reshuffle their release structure to grant the director more time to finesse the film even as the studio itself went through a reorganisation of its own — no doubt bolstered by the support of Steven Spielberg. After all, as note-perfect as the first film might have been it was in its flawless finale that it truly distinguished itself. The Hidden World opens with a series of barnstorming set-pieces that effectively demonstrate how much Hiccup and Toothless have grown, both together and apart, while simultaneously showcasing the advances in animation — the characters appearing more nuanced than ever, their expressions and movements brimming with personality and camaraderie. It’s bigger and better than anything audiences have seen before from the franchise, with more dragons and higher stakes than ever, even if the narrative takes a while to navigate its way into position.
For all its breathtaking bombast and hilarious hi-jinx, however, the series has always excelled in its quieter moments, and The Hidden World is no exception. DeBlois, who also made Lilo & Stitch for Disney, has enough confidence in his characters and their relationships that he’s unafraid to slow things down and let the images speak for themselves. When Hiccup gives Toothless permission to pursue the Light Fury, redesigning his prosthetic tail to permit solo-flight, the audience joins the dragon on its search, sharing in his successes and disappointments. Not a word is spoken, and yet the character is so keenly designed and by now so utterly beloved that these scenes are among the film’s most moving and invigorating. Most powerful of all, however, are the character beats that mirror those from previous films, such as one particular scene that subverts Hiccup and Toothless’ first meeting. The themes rhyme and recur as well, so that where the first film’s central conflict lay in Hiccup’s attempts to change his reality this film takes things full circle, asking Hiccup to reassess his own beliefs and consider a different, slightly more conservative course of action.
Whereas the first film dealt with friendship and the second with family, The Hidden World focuses on romantic love. Until now, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid (America Ferrera) has gone relatively undeveloped, though their respect for one another has never been in doubt. As Berk’s other inhabitants pursue romances of their own, their advances often played for comic effect, Hiccup and Astrid rightly take their relationship incredibly seriously. Astrid has long been portrayed as the strongest, most competent character, at least among Berk’s younger generation, and though she is once again cast in a supportive role, desperate to convince Hiccup that he’s ready to lead, it is clearer than ever that she is valued and revered as his equal. No character is underserved, with Stoic returning via flashback and twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) given ample scenes to steal, but its Hiccup and his relationships that remain at the centre of the film.
Because Hiccup and Toothless have been allowed to learn, develop and mature, each forced to accept the consequences of their actions, they feel more rounded and complex than the vast majority of animated protagonists. The weight of their shared experiences hangs heavily over the film, especially in its last act, and as the pair begin to grow apart the inevitability of their coming compromise lends unprecedented poignancy to their scenes together. DeBlois has done himself and his characters proud, and as John Powell’s career-defining score soars for the final time the trilogy ends on a triumphant, heart-swelling high.