We all know the story: an animal and a kid enter into a forbidden friendship, and are forced to keep it secret from everyone they know. Dogs, Horses, Whales, Loch Ness Monsters, the movies are all more less the same. But never have we seen this story told with such visual flair and emotional heft as in the How to Train Your Dragontrilogy.
Beginning in 2010, the series filled the Pixar-sized hole in our hearts left behind after the conclusion of the Toy Story trilogy (or so we thought). Both the original and its 2014 sequel were critical and commercial successes, inspiring a video game, a tv-show and several short films. As the cinematic universe extended, it brought with it high audience expectations that the impending finale would bring justice to the series. And bring justice it did.
Dragons, Hunters And A Hidden World
The story begins right where film two left off. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the chief of Berk, his home island, where Vikings who used to hunt Dragons now live in harmony amongst them. Hiccup, his friends, his girlfriend Astrid, and his Dragon-training mother are on a mission to rescue and protect all dragons, including the ones imprisoned by nearby dragon catchers.
Despite minor overcrowding issues (there are a lot of dragons), the Vikings and Dragons live together happily. That is, until the disgruntled dragon catchers enlist infamous dragon hunter Grimmel (menacingly voiced by F. Murray Abraham), placing their entire existence under threat. Unsafe on Berk, Hiccup leads the clan on a quest for the “Hidden World”, a mythical dragon-filled oasis. On the way, Toothless, previously presumed to be the last of his kind, finds a mate and falls in love. But what will that mean for his relationship with Hiccup?
Growing Up With Hiccup And Toothless
There is a refreshing maturity to this series, and particularly its conclusion, that distinguishes itself from many insubstantial family films before it. Throughout the series, death and disability – tough themes that many family films shy away from – are addressed head on. These bold choices, made by the series’ writer/director Dean DeBlois, have leant real emotional weight to the trilogy. In an interview with Iana Murray, Jay Baruchel eloquently sums up how mature ideas improve the films’ stories:
“I think the main reason that the films are good is because they’re honest, and they’re honest about the cost of things. Anything important is going to come with a bit of difficulty – you love, you learn to lose. Change is inherently hard, but that doesn’t mean these things are to be avoided – quite the opposite. This is what it means to be a human being, to grow up and understand these truths. That’s an uncommon message, not just in animated films but in films period.”
The trilogy’s final entry continues this trend, by addressing tough ideas about sacrifice, hunting, and animal rights. It the above interview, Murray summarises the essence of Hiccup’s growth: “The first two films are about Hiccup achieving this dream, but the third film is about him understanding that it’s not just about him. He has to accommodate more than himself.” This thematic focus on maturity is very fitting, considering that the kids who began watching Hiccup’s story in 2010 have grown up with him for the past decade. Just as Hiccup has grown from an awkward, underachieving teen into a courageous Viking leader, so has the films’ audience grown, as reflected in the series’ increasingly mature subject matter.
While film two’s villain, the megalomanic Drago, relied on abstract concepts of dragon mind control, film three’s villain is grounded in more modern threats like trophy hunters. By positioning dragon hunters as the villain, DeBlois makes the film feel more compelling and relevant. Moreover, in his decision to juxtapose the stunning shots of the dragons flying in pack, with each stunning creature trapped in a cage, DeBlois argues for a sympathetic view of animals and animal rights.
First Comes Love, Then Comes…
Just because a film is about growing up, doesn’t mean that it needs to fabricate some milestones to signify that. Much of the character tension revolves around the clan’s assumption that Astrid and Hiccup should be getting married soon, and the pair’s response to those expectations.
I get it. Toothless is growing up and finding love, so from a writing perspective it makes sense to parallel that with Hiccup’s own steps into serious romance. However, the marriage is positioned as nothing more than a means to an end; a signifier that Hiccup has “grown up” and is ready to step into his father’s shoes.
The film spends so much time on Toothless, Grimmel, and the quest for the Hidden World, that this romance plot-line felt overcrowded and under-cooked. Minor flirting and a few dragon rides is not enough to justify a marriage, and it’s this lack of screen time given to Astrid and Hiccup that makes this plot point miss the mark.
Throwing in an ad-hoc wedding plot point, to inject meaning and finality into the story, is very off-brand for a series that is built on some genuinely emotional moments. It borrows from Disney, in the worst sort of way.
The People Of Berk, And The People Who Voice Them
Jay Baruchel maintains his steadfast efforts as the likeable, earnest Hiccup. The supporting cast of Hiccup’s friends – Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Justin Ripple, Christopher Mintz-Plasse – all continue to bring laughs as the comic relief, even if their jokes seem juvenile compared to the series’ increasingly dark tone.
Following the death of Hiccup’s father in the previous film, I had hoped that his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), would play a more significant role here. However, her character is largely sidelined, her main purpose being to urge America Ferrera’s Astrid (another underused role) to encourage and inspire Hiccup to reach his full potential.
The Masters Behind The Scenes
It is worth noting that so much of the film’s storytelling is through subtle, non-verbal moments. The animators deserve all the credit for how much of Hiccup and Toothless’s relationship and communication is built on small gestures, loaded with meaning.
On a technical level, the film stuns, particularly in the animation and score. The dazzling scene where Astrid and Hiccup discover the Hidden World pays homage to Avatar’s vivid use of colour in one the best moments of the film. The flight scenes continue to be genuinely exhilarating, complemented by the animators’ stunningly rendered sky-scapes and cloud imagery.
Sequel Fatigue, And The Joy Of A Finale
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World brings the franchise to a moving conclusion in a way that touches on very relevant themes about animal rights, growing up, and making sacrifices. The finality of this film is, perhaps, what I’m most grateful for about The Hidden World.
In this era of cautious filmmaking, there is increasing financial pressure from studios to produce films with audience familiarity to maximise box office, be it sequels, remakes or prequels. However, many a good franchise has been ruined by studios getting greedy and making one (or three) too many films (Die Hard, Home Alone, Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m looking at you). How To Train Your Dragon is avoiding this route, and we are all better off for it.
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World: Conclusion
Just like its predecessors, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World brings dazzling animation and a soaring celtic score in this moving tribute to a boy and his best friend. Although a refreshing break from the series’ good but overlong second film, the final entry still tries to cram too many plot points in. Despite these minor writing issues, Dean DeBlois should be commended for the way he deals with adult themes of sacrifice and growing up, while still keeping the bright-eyed charm that made the original so great. The Hidden World is a joy, and offers a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to the much loved trilogy.
What is your favourite animated children’s film? Discuss in the comments!
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is out in theaters in most of the world.