by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 21, 2019

There have been two unfailingly consistent bright spots in the 20-plus years’ worth of animated theatrical features produced by Dreamworks Animation. The first is the Kung Fu Panda series (2008-16), whose silly cartoon animals and underdog-sports-flick tropes conceal a trilogy of deliriously entertaining martial-arts films set in a richly textured mythic China. The second is the How to Train Your Dragon franchise (2010-19), which, under the steady yet fanciful guidance of writer-director Dean DeBlois, has been revealed as a wacky but thrilling adventure series that doubles as a sensitive allegory about the relationship between animals and humankind. Given that the aesthetically triumphant (and still-underappreciated) Kung Fu Panda 3 wrapped up the saga of Po the Dragon Warrior so enjoyably in 2016, there is a bit of trepidation surrounding the arrival of How to Train Your Dragon’s concluding chapter. The sheer consistency exhibited by the two preceding Dragon features – in terms of the quality of animation, design, and storytelling, not to mention a distinctive but modest tonal equipoise – feels like an increasingly rare and precious thing in 21st-century studio animation. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is accordingly positioned to either enshrine or dash the series’ legacy.

Happily, the third Dragon feature does the franchise proud, at least in terms of its most vital selling points: eye-popping design, soaring animated action, and a poignant thematic core that builds quite splendidly on the beats of its predecessors. Disappointingly, however, The Hidden World tends to fumble some of the storytelling and comedic fundamentals that the first two films approached with such creamy self-assurance. Like Kung Fu Panda 3 – but to a more distracting extent – the latest Dragon is an unaccountably lumpy film, lacking the narrative sleekness that was one of the low-key pleasures of the franchise up to this point. The Hidden World also leans harder on the broad, shrill character humor that has always been one of the series’ weaker aspects, expanding what should have been dopey throwaway jokes into lethally unfunny extended gags. It is therefore a credit to DeBlois and the entire Dreamworks team that this concluding Dragon film ends up being such a touching endpoint to the series, despite these flaws. The way that The Hidden World wraps up the story of unlikely dragon rider Hiccup and his loyal steed Toothless is somewhat unexpected, but in retrospect it’s the only way that the saga could have concluded while retaining its honest, heartfelt essence.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of the second film, The Hidden World finds the indefatigable Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and the Night Fury dragon Toothless leading daring raids against an increasingly active and far-flung contingent of dragon trappers. Having ascended to the chieftainship of the Viking village of Berk after the death of his father, Stoick, Hiccup has aggressively set himself to the task of rescuing the world’s myriad dragon species from human exploitation. Assisting him in this endeavor are his fellow dragon riders: his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), a warrior-shaman and dragon savant in her own right; his battle-maiden girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera); the strapping reformed dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington); and Hiccup’s original coming-of-age cohort, consisting of Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and fraternal twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).

Although Hiccup’s strike team has its bumbling moments, these forays have been so succesful that Berk is starting to feel the strain of draconic overpopulation. The village has been impressively and ingeniously modified over the years to accommodate its scaly residents, and the formerly sleepy Berk is now an undeniably crowded and chaotic place to live, where humans rub shoulders with swarms of dragons of every imaginable shape and size. In a sense, Hiccup’s home has become a victim of its own success, and while the young chief is at least partly in denial about this fact, Berk is now a juicy target for ambitious dragon hunters.

The most dangerous of these is Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a droll and cunning fiend who proudly boasts of hunting the world’s Night Furies to the brink of extinction. On hearing that Berk’s dragon-loving chief rides such a creature, Grimmel sets his sights on Toothless – and, by extension, all the village’s dragons, as Toothless’ alpha status ensures that Berk’s draconic population follow him. Unfortunately, Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a female Light Fury, a related breed of dragon that resembles a pearly-white, eel-smooth Night Fury. Grimmel also commands a sextet of scorpion-like Deathgripper dragons, creatures cruelly drugged into obdience with their own potent venom. One attack by these fearsome beasts is all the motivation Hiccup needs to initiate a long-gestating plan. Guided by little more than sketchy legends once related by his late father, Hiccup organizes a mass exodus of Berk to the fabled Hidden World, an eldritch dragon nesting ground allegedly located at the far edge of the ocean. His hope is that Berks’s dragons and humans will be able to live together peacefully in this sanctuary, unmolested by dragon-hating outsiders.

The Hidden World is thus revealed as a sort of Promised Land story, and although – at the risk of slight spoilers – the titular realm is indeed a physical place, its true significance is that of a plot-pushing MacGuffin, an idealized destination for the characters to strive toward. Unfortunately, writer-director DeBlois has some difficulty maintaining the ruthless focus that a literally linear story such as this demands, cluttering up the plot with a glut of back-and-forth action and some very hazy geography. (The spatial relationships and distances between important locales – the village of Berk, Grimmel’s fortress, the dragon trappers’ armada, a waystation island, and others – are distractingly messy, even for an animated fantasy.) The film simply feels narratively shaggy in a way that its predecessors rather elegantly avoided, and as such it can’t help but feel relatively disappointing. Even when DeBlois’ indulgent streak pays amusing dividends – such as extended wordless sequence in which Toothless haplessly courts his Light Fury crush – it comes at the expense of the trimness that made previous Dragons such pleasing pop morsels.

Even more frustrating is the extent to which The Hidden World allows its crass secondary characters to run roughshod over the film’s comedic tone. Craig Ferguson’s garrulous blacksmith Gobber remains a highlight, as usual, but the clueless blustering of Snoutlout, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut is wearisome to the point of being interminable. The overbearing teen wannabe dragon slayers of the original film were always its least entertaining aspect, but in small doses they at least were a source of mild, groan-inducing amusement. The Hidden World expands these now-adult characters’ lines and screen time, a questionable move that unfortunately echoes the “Mater-fication” problem that plagued Pixar’s Cars 2 (2011). The results range from unfunny and icky (Snoutlout’s flop-sweaty and age-inappropriate efforts to woo Hiccup’s mom) to unfunny and leaden (Tuffnut’s inexplicable insistence on being Hiccup’s romantic mentor) to unfunny and exhausting (Ruffnut pretty much all the time).

These missteps are dispiriting but hardly fatal, especially considering how thrillingly the film fulfills the series’ more defining features. As a feat of animation and design, The Hidden World is everything a capstone Dragon feature should be. It not only reflects the technological advancements that have occurred over the past decade or so, but also serves as a giddy continuation of and elaboration on the franchise’s commitment to its cartoonish, Dark Ages-flavored fantasy visuals. It surely comes as no surprise that a 2019 animated film is light-years beyond its 2010 predecessor in the depiction of grass, hair, metal, cloth, scales, water, sand, and even a toddler’s slightly runny nose, but it’s still mightily impressive to witness the bright attention to detail that has become a hallmark of the series.

The film’s artists – led by production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, returning from the second film – continue to realize the setting with an extravagance that feels both wondrous and suitably lived-in, from the anarchic riot of color and motion that characterizes the dragon-packed Berk to the colorful, pebbly dragon-scale armor donned by Hiccup and his fellow riders. One notable small-scale delight is the character design of Grimmel: a vampiric figure whose jocular, self-possessed menace is ornamented by little touches such as his thin, chapped lips and unruly shock of white hair. As one might expect, the legendary Hidden World is also a highlight, being an Avatar-like subterranean wonderland of phosphorescent fungus, luminous crystals, and dizzying swarms of fantastic creatures. Cinematographer Roger Deakins once again serves as the series’ visual consultant, and his virtuosic understanding of light and color is apparent in practically every frame of the film.

Consistent with the Kung Fu Panda series, the How to Train Your Dragon films have always been superior action films – better, in truth, than most contemporary live-action features – and The Hidden World is no exception. Like its predecessors, the third film is the rare theatrical feature whose appropriately free-wheeling sense of space and motion makes fine use of the remastered 3D IMAX format. The dizzying aerial chases and battles are, naturally, a reliable high point, but there’s a claustrophobic set piece set inside a hellish, chain-link labyrinth that capably showcases the flip side of the film’s visual sensibility, with the heroes scrambling through nooks and crannies to evade the gouts of green acid belched forth by Grimmel’s Deathgrippers.

At bottom, however, the factors that makes the Dragon franchise something more than a competent-but-unremarkable animated fantasy saga are the series’ emotional poignancy and allegorical forcefulness. The improbable connection between human and dragon has always been the dynamo that drives the films – as embodied in the image of Hiccup’s open palm tentatively coming to rest on Toothless’ curious snout. The Hidden World regards this relationship seriously but with clear eyes, and as a result the third film winds up concluding the series in a manner that is somewhat melancholy and bittersweet. While The Hidden World engages in its share of tear-jerking, it never feels unearned or calculating, consistently proceeding from a place of frank affection for the characters and the bonds they’ve established.

“Loss is part of the deal that comes with love,” Stoick (Gerard Butler) says to a young Hiccup in a flashback sequence, and although the burly chieftain was speaking of his presumed-dead wife, the point applies to the Berkians’ relationship with their dragons – and, by extension, humans’ relationship with animals in the real world. The How to Train Your Dragon films have always been at least partly message pictures about the virtues of giving living creatures the attention, affection, and dignity they deserve, as expressed through a misfit pioneer spirit. Even if Dreamworks never quite intended for the original Dragon feature to serve as a fanciful metaphor for the pre-historical process of domestication, it works splendidly on such a level. The Hidden World takes this metaphor to its admittedly tough-minded conclusion, positing that there comes a time when putting the needs of another living thing above one’s own comfort and desires becomes, if not a moral imperative, then at least the Right Thing to Do. The fantastical and unambiguously intelligent nature of the film’s dragon species allows for an ethical clarity that is not often found in the real world, but The Hidden World isn’t aiming to be anything so strident as, say, an Okja-style appeal for veganism. It is, rather, a plea to think carefully and self-critically about relationships of all sorts, but especially those with creatures that can’t speak for themselves.

Rating: B-