‘The Hidden World,’ is a pretty apt subtitle for the final chapter in the How To Train Your Dragon series considering these films seem to come and go without much fanfare. The franchise - a world of fun, dragon-centric nonsense with greater heart, pathos, structure and quality of storytelling than most other animated ventures - is often overlooked somehow, never finding its fully earnt place in the pantheon of pop culture. It’s own hidden world full of fun and frenzy I’ve always felt these films deserved more attention than they received. I should say upfront that I’ve been a fan of these films since the get go. And here we see the series reach a fully satisfying, if not a little predictable, conclusion.
Maybe that opening paragraph sounded a little too on the nose, a little supercilious, if you will. But honestly these films are great and can’t be touched by the likes of other animated franchises. Shrek for instance, grew more and more obviously a massive cash grab; the stories deteriorating, becoming increasingly ludicrous as they went on. Here we have a fully planned out, well-structured trilogy. While the first installment was a light-hearted, cheerful, kid friendly adventure, the second part - an Empire Strikes Back-style dark middle chapter - expanded the universe of these films, introducing real stakes, tangible family drama, action that felt dangerous, and even an important death. And here we have the final chapter, bringing the journey of Hiccup, Toothless and all the inhabitants of Berk to a fitting close. The story is wrapped up in possibly the only way it could or should have been.
Watching in a cinema of much younger viewers I did wonder how much of the continuing aspect of this story would go over some heads. The mother next to me desperately trying to narrate and keep her kid interested is testament to the fact this this film operates as the closing chapter of an ongoing story and not a standalone adventure. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, in fact, I love that these stories continue from one film to the next, just keep in mind your enjoyment may be hindered by a lack of context. Having said that there’s a lot here to enjoy without knowing the entire back story.
‘The Hidden World,’ manages to cram in enough standalone story, new characters, events and stunning visuals (a stalwart feature of the series) to be a success on its own. Berk is now over crowded with rescue dragons and it’s becoming a problem; at the same time dragon hunters are after Berk’s reptilian inhabitants, one in particular wants to literally kill all of the dragons; Hiccup, the new village chief, is set on rescuing as many dragons as possible without thinking of their well being or that of his people; and finally, a Light Fury (the female counterpoint to the Night Fury) shows up, proving an unavoidable distraction for Toothless. Hiccup, remembering a story his now deceased Dad once told him of a Hidden Kingdom, decides to take the entire settlement and relocate, despite what’s actually best for his people and the dragons. It’s a classic story of letting go. Toothless finds a mate and Hiccup discovers the Hidden World - utopia for reptiles and gorgeously animated - is no place for a tribe of Vikings. With the destruction of the dragons on his tail Hiccup must face the toughest decision of his life in order to save the dragons but losing one of the most important relationships in his life in the process.
There’s no lack of creativity showered on this new chapter. An entire Viking settlement evacuated on the backs of an army of dragons being just one example. Great fun is to be had with Hiccup playing Serano to Toothless as he tries to flirt with a potential mate. The Hidden World is gorgeous and the Night/Light Fury’s journey there is a dialogue-less dragon ballet. Stunning.
What else is fun about this film? Quite a lot. The supporting cast has always been a great asset to these films and here I felt like all of Hiccup’s ragtag crew got to shine. Kristen Wiig, whose voice work here has always been undetectable, gets a lot more to do with the annoyingly, lovable Ruffnut. There’s a new villain, flamboyant and cunning, he’s slippery and deadly, his playfulness only makes him seem more dangerous, a fun change from the droll and imposing warrior antagonist of the second film. There’s even a burgeoning queer romance between canonically gay, blacksmith Gobber and the baddie-turned goodie trapper Eret. It’s subtle but watch that bouquet at the end. I’m not imagining it. Finally, the inevitable conclusion to this film had me in tears. Yes, this is the second review in a row where I’ve cried but I’m fine, I’M FINE!
Having been made across nearly ten years, starting out with a much lighter tone, the targeted demographic of the film’s audience is somewhat unclear. Is this a film for the kids who started out with Hiccup and have grown with him into adulthood or is it for the kids of today? There is enough depth and darkness, along with adult humour, in here for the adults and enough fun colourful dragons for the kids. So both, I guess. Although I’d feel negligent not to stress this isn’t one of those kids films with some subtle dirty jokes for the parents. I think it goes deeper in this case. It’s been nine years since the first Dragon film came out. An unassuming, offbeat kid’s film, which could easily have been a one off and yet, instead, grew into a complex, dark, heartful trilogy of films with a fulfilling and definite conclusion (a rarity these franchise filled days).
If this films suffers for any reason, it’s simply because as the third part of a trilogy the audience may feel a burden to walk in up to date on the happenings of Berk and its dragons, and the final outcome is easy to see coming. However, I’m convinced that any well structured, well told narrative should have an obvious end point, that all signs should have been leading the viewer there from the beginning. This is the burden of part three of any trilogy and knowing where something should end is not necessarily a fault. Getting there will only feel the more fulfilling because of this. Sure, there can be twists and surprises but there’s nothing as off putting as a story that doesn’t go where it should and that’s not the case here.
These movies have been incredibly well developed, this film has been made with care and attention, enough that it still feels fresh and exciting, with story and visuals which don’t disappoint. What’s perhaps the most astonishing is that these films have always been and remain full of heart no matter how much darkness they introduce. The overarching message being one of acceptance and learning to communicate to conquer differences. Finally, this film and thus the series ends with a pretty strong statement: that the dragons have gone into hiding, waiting for the world to become a place where they can live in peace. The insinuation being that they’re still waiting.
A fitting conclusion to a pretty terrific series, which deserves to be seen and talked about and not hidden away beneath some waterfall. I hope the legacy of these films lives on and I hope we can see some more epic storytelling told with animation. Perhaps the series high US opening weekend of ‘Hidden World’ will help bring these films and the prospect of new films like them out of the shadows.