In an age of endless tie-ins, spin-offs, and sequels on sequels, it is incredibly refreshing to see a story truly brought to a close. I admit I only came to the series recently, but the final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy made me feel as though I had been on this journey with Hiccup and Toothless since the beginning with a satisfying sense of accomplishment and closure. I won’t say the story beats were exactly unpredictable, but even when the road ahead is easy to see, arriving at the destination is emotional and poignant.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World starts off with a rollicking action sequence involving the liberation of captive dragons that quickly reacquaints the audience with the band of young Vikings we’ve come to know in the nine years since the release of the first blockbuster installment. Each of the core cast has a moment to shine (or not) in the battle, reminding us of their quirks and their weakness. Not unlike Luke Skywalker’s appearance at the top of Return of the Jedi, we are shown a Hiccup clad in impressive black armor, more formidable than ever. He’s still dorkily awkward at times, particularly given pressure to marry Astrid (America Ferrara) now that he has inherited the mantle of the chief of Berk.
Watching the Viking village of Berk develop is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of this series, and it delivers. From the beginning of this film, Berk is more colorful than ever, literally overrun with dragons (and absolutely inexplicable Scottish accents … they are Vikings!) as Hiccup’s rescue efforts continue to escalate (and Scotsman Craig Ferguson’s Gobber continues to be a highlight of the series). This is a source of tension between Hiccup and his fellow Vikings, in addition to the aforementioned pressure to wed, but a bigger threat is brewing on the horizon, although I found that threat a bit bland.
The series tradition of transparently apt names continues with Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the new foe hellbent on exterminating dragons, a motivation with a reason behind it that is explained but quickly forgotten in the furor of the film’s epic climax. Director Dean DeBlois has stated that the original plan was to have Djimon Honsou return as Drago, the villain of the second installment, and achieve redemption by the story’s close, but Steven Spielberg convinced him it would consume too much screen time. The handwaving of Drago’s absence in a throwaway line was frustrating, and the fact that Grimmel is basically Drago with a more cohesive strategy compounded my distaste for that decision.
Still, the strength of this series has never been in its antagonists, but rather in its heroes. As I have said, the opening action sequence is masterful. The climax was confusing as to its geography at times, but no less pulse-pounding. Even more memorable than the action sequences, and perhaps any of the human interactions, is the romance between Toothless and the new dragon, the Light Fury. Director Dean DeBlois often allows their playful courtship to go on for quite a bit longer than would have been tolerable were they not such brilliantly adorable designs, a perfect mix of feline, canine, and reptile designed to be instantly appealing and friendly, and I loved every second of it.
Also long were establishing shots of the titular Hidden World, a sanctuary for dragons beyond the horizon not unlike Avatar’s Pandora in otherworldliness and psychedelic brilliance. Extended establishing shots allowing the visuals to bring us deeper into the world are a hallmark of the series, but in a film where the core plot of the preceding film was removed due to time constraints, this sequence in particular seemed to drag, although to its credit, I can’t think of a moment of the spectacle I would want to lose.
When the final battle, a magnificent action piece that makes use of long takes and impressive scale, finally winds down, so does the main story of the series, which is, at its heart, about coexistence. This theme plays out in a way that is both hopeful yet realistic, with a definitive finality that is not often seen in children’s entertainment. Although there are certainly stories remaining within the world that I have no doubt will be told, this particular tale of Hiccup and Toothless is brought to a close in a way that underscores the morals that have been at the heart of the series from the beginning.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World stars America Fereera and Jay Baruchel, and lands in theaters in the United States this Friday, February 22, 2019.