Film critic Scott Wilson looks at the concluding chapter to one of modern cinema’s best trilogies.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – ★★★★★
Other than the Disney-Pixar behemoth, animation still struggles to attract the recognition it deserves. Even since the turn of the century, the amount of critically acclaimed films made via computer animation or good old-fashioned pen-to-paper is significant, yet often overlooked. Each frame of Loving Vincent was hand-painted, Shinkai’s Your Name was a sweeping epic made all the more profound by its gorgeous presentation, and Kubo and the Two Strings’ stop-motion was so masterful and delicate that just seeing it in action was enough to feel the magic of visual storytelling.
Dreamworks isn’t a studio that struggles for recognition, with some mega franchises in the bag including Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung-Fu Panda. The fact remains though that animated films struggle for the attention they deserve, as seen by last year’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie from the same studio. One of the funniest films of the year, many chose not to bother with it, given pre-conceived notions of what these films are like.
All this to say, the How to Train Your Dragon series is one of the best movie trilogies of all time. Whether it is held up against the also-animated Toy Story franchise (which will soon no longer be its own perfect trilogy), or masterful live-action trios like Lord of the Rings and the Before films, How to Train Your Dragon stands tall as an essential three-piece arc in cinema.
With the trilogy’s completion, the series leaves a legacy of films that are fun, yes, but mature, high-concept, filled with emotion, and utterly beautiful in every way.
Nine years after the first in the series, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World brings this story to its rightful conclusion. Hiccup and Toothless now lead Berk, they and their friends rescuing imprisoned dragons from their captors. Approaching something resembling his perfect vision of the world, where dragons and humans co-exist, the location is no longer fit for purpose, overcrowded and vulnerable to attacks. Remembering an old myth his dad used to tell him of a Hidden World where dragons could be safe, he decides to find it and relocate Berk’s inhabitants there.
But the world is not without villains. Grimmel the Grisly, a legendary dragon hunter, is enlisted to capture Toothless for a gang of warlords who would use him for power. The warlords give Grimmel a captive female Fury to use as bait, luring Toothless away from the protection of his pack and Hiccup.
After the epic How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World brings all the mythology back to universal notions of love and duty. Grimmel resembles a Final Fantasy villain rather than anything visually intimidating, but it is what he represents that makes him so scary. Hiccup, raised to fight dragons himself, could have been Grimmel, but instead chose to unite humans and dragons. They represent two opposing ideologies that cannot co-exist, leaving Hiccup to wonder how Berk can ever be safe while there are those who see dragons as trophies to hunt.
With Astrid at his side, the co-dependency between Hiccup and Toothless is made clear, as Hiccup’s perception of himself has become tied to the power of his dragon companion. Now at risk of losing him to a female mate, Hiccup is left to wonder what gives him the right to lead the islanders. Is he still worthy of his influence without a Night Fury?
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Both Hiccup and Toothless are somewhat reckless, but Astrid and the Light Fury are beings who both care and pierce through their tendencies to isolate themselves. As Hiccup’s doubts grow, Astrid’s presence is a reminder of unconditional love and support from those who matter.
Toothless and the Light Fury explore each other in a gorgeous night flight through storms and auroras, a wordless type of cinema that communicates a transcendental moment of profound meaning. It is an utterly beautiful way of expressing love between two creatures who can’t talk, showing not just the love they are sharing, but also the kind of images cinema can give us to fall in love to.
But where these films excel is in subverting narrative expectations. Mainstream cinema is formulaic as it is, and family films even more so. After the huge emotional stakes of How to Train Your Dragon 2, that comfort is absent from The Hidden World. I found myself completely unsure of what the fates of these characters would be, and whether that’s because of precedence in the series or just because the story is told so well audiences will stop trying to second-guess it – well, it doesn’t matter. To have that sort of command and attention of an audience is no mean feat in a time of cynicism and irony.
With two high quality films preceding this one, The Hidden World has earned the title of trustworthy, and it takes the story where it must go. There is no cop-out over Hiccup’s conflict as a leader, aware that the utopia of Berk is unsustainable in a world hostile towards dragons. With the trilogy’s completion, the series leaves a legacy of films that are fun, yes, but mature, high-concept, filled with emotion, and utterly beautiful in every way. Cinema at its best.
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