Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer
There once was a gangly Viking who wanted to be a dragon-slayer like everyone else, except when he wounded one, he found that he couldn’t kill a creature as frightened as he. The two became tentative friends, then a fierce and loyal team who opened their friends’ eyes to a new way of life.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World puts a capstone on an animated series that’s blended elaborate dragons and quirky folklore with screwball humor and a deft emotional touch, handling themes like the loss that comes with risk—or even love. The once-hapless Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, This Is the End) and his dragon friend, Toothless, aren’t training much this time around, but this third—and purportedly final—cinematic outing for the How to Train Your Dragon clan still bursts with wonder. While it doesn’t hit the heights of the 2010 original, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, its emotional currents and dreamy animation make The Hidden World soar.
In the years since a teenage Hiccup met Toothless (spawning a sequel and several animated series), the craggy village of Berk has become not just a peaceful place where dragons and Vikings coexist but a community bursting at the scales. Hiccup, the chief since the death of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler, who appears in flashbacks), is proud of their refuge, but Gobber (Craig Ferguson) warns that their charity—and elbow room—can stretch only so far.
The tipping point comes in the form of a wild, white dragon that Astrid (America Ferrara, TV’s Superstore), Hiccup’s friend and sweetheart, nicknames the Light Fury. The female version of Toothless’s Night Fury species, the Light Fury has a catlike demeanor and a sparkly coat that refracts light, rendering her invisible. (The effect reminded me of the cloaking device in 1987’s Predator.) She also spews energy blasts through which she seems to disappear.
Toothless is smitten instantly, the Light Fury less so, although she’s intrigued. One of The Hidden World’s charming callbacks to the original film is how Toothless and she wordlessly interact, much like Toothless and Hiccup during their burgeoning friendship. The courtship is adorably funny, in part because the Light Fury can’t figure out why her potential beau has this human around.
Unknown to her, she’s also bait. Catching sight of Toothless, a Night Fury that he hasn’t slain, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, TV’s Homeland) decides to track her to hunt him. Grimmel also scolds Hiccup for his romanticism and youth, calling life with dragons a fool’s paradise.
To handle the overcrowding and protect everyone from this latest threat, Hiccup decides to look for the hidden dragon world that his father once sought. Meanwhile, he’s also torn between giving Toothless his freedom and wondering what kind of leader and warrior he’ll be without his buddy.
Older viewers may sense where the film is headed well before the ending, but it doesn’t make the story any less resonant once it gets there. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World covers thematic ground similar to last year’s Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, with friends growing older and considering divergent paths. But writer-director Dean DeBlois, who’s handled the rest of this trilogy, has a gentle style that makes even sad moments sweet.
The animation and visual effects—Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) is listed as a visual consultant—are just lovely, with eclectic styles for the dragons, high-flying action, and sequences that play with light. A fiery sword and dragon’s breath glow in the fog. Wings and armor pop with bioluminescent color. Toothless and the Light Fury see themselves reflected in each other’s huge pupils, or touch wingtips as they glide under northern lights.
With the focus on the dragons’ romance, the supporting cast gets somewhat short shrift. Viewers who missed 2014’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be surprised to hear talk of whether Astrid and Hiccup should get married; their interaction is fairly chaste. But the straight-talking Astrid remains a good supportive foil for Hiccup, and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is endearingly amusing, with a baby dragon tucked his breastplate because he couldn’t find a sitter. Meanwhile, Snotlout (Jonah Hill) has the icky subplot of flirting with Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). The twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) annoy as questionable comic relief, and muscular Eret (Kit Harington) wanders through carrying heavy things.
Grimmel, for all Abraham’s cultured menace, isn’t a villain whose type we haven’t seen before, but he also takes a backseat to a story and a series with its eye on bigger things: the tricky highs and lows of growing up. Toward that end, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a flight worth taking that ends on a beautiful note.
Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She’s a “Tomatometer-approved” critic on RottenTomatoes.com and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.