I’ve been a fan of the How to Train Your Dragon series since the very first film. It’s by far the best animated franchise from Dreamworks. Not only is the quality of the animation itself breathtaking, but the storylines are much more relatable than the Shrek series, which is fine, but largely a string of pop culture references and fart jokes. But the Dragons have always been fun for me; I even followed the first TV series for a couple of seasons, though I lost track when they kept changing the names and my DVR couldn’t keep up.
To me, what put it in the upper echelon of serial animation was the bond between Hiccup and Toothless, which came from genuine fear and curiosity evolving into a rapport that was always coequal instead of codependent. Hiccup and Toothless chose each other, and over the course of the first two films, they each realized their own potential and power.
Now we have the third – and presumably final – installment, The Hidden World, which is about letting go. In some ways it works, with tremendous emotional resonance as the main plot is basically a feature length version of, “If you love someone, set them free.” In other ways, it’s a bit cheesy, and on the nose in a meta sense.
When it comes to the latter, we have the glaring absence of T.J. Miller, who played the immature twin Tuffnut. The character is instead voiced by comedian Justin Rupple, and his omission from the slow montage celebration of the franchise cast during the credits is a tad jarring for anyone who’s invested a fair amount of time in the franchise. This probably wouldn’t have been as noticeable if not for the fact that Tuffnut has his biggest role in this film, appointing himself as Hiccup’s (Jay Baruchel) Best Man, training him to be more decisive and manly so that he can be proper marriage material for Astrid (America Ferrera).
It’s in this subplot that things start to fall apart. For some reason, the entire Berk community (particularly Craig Ferguson’s Gobber) is dedicated to Hiccup and Astrid marrying as soon as possible, because apparently there’s no point in being chief if you can’t reduce the baddest ass character to a housewife pumping out children. This is supposed to mirror the budding romance between Toothless and a female Fury they encounter (they dub her a Light Fury rather than give her a name), which is mostly played for well-earned laughs, but for the humans it’s just tacked on. Also, for some ungodly reason, Snotlout (Jonah Hill) thinks he’s in competition with the converted villain from the last film, Eret (Kit Harington), for the affections of Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). Her half-hearted acceptance of Snotlout’s affections, where she placates him by saying that Eret is the brawn while he was the brains is a long way to go for a meta “You know nothing, Jon Snow” joke. Finally, the rest of the crew, Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) have hints of perfunctory romance. It’s all a waste of time, and a weirdly Disney-friendly attempt to pair off all the major characters before the end of the series.
Anyway, the main story picks up a year after the last film, with Hiccup and his crew continuing their work freeing dragons from slave traders and hunters. Toothless, now established as the Alpha Dragon, can convince the scared captives of the safety of Berk, which is now so overrun with refugee dragons that the town is falling apart. Rather than make this an ill-advised political statement, Hiccup remembers a dream from his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) about a mythical hole in the ocean at the edge of the world, from which all dragons come. Not wanting to give up the symbiotic relationship between Berk and the dragons, Hiccup convinces the entire community to pull up stakes and head for this place. Along the way, they stop to rest on a much bigger island, which is enough for all the quasi-Vikings to declare it their new home.
Meanwhile, Toothless is being hunted by the film’s primary villain, Grimmel (who is voiced by F. Murray Abraham despite looking like Sacha Baron Cohen), who was apparently the first dragon hunter to take down a Night Fury, and took a liking to his hero status as a result. And so he’s got an Ahab-like obsession with killing every last one of them. He uses the Light Fury as bait to distract Toothless and slow the migration long enough to find them and attempt the capture and kill. He’s a necessary step back in the danger department, though the film does well enough to make him smart and menacing. Once you sacrifice a leg to defeat a giant dragon, then make Toothless into the king of all dragons to stop a slaver who can hypnotize them, there really isn’t a way to elevate the risk any further.
The film succeeds in the areas where it always has. Hiccup is a great protagonist because he’s insecure, thoughtful, and a nice antithesis to toxic masculinity. The partnership between he and Toothless is one of the best friendships in modern film, because apart from a few gags here and there (like playing fetch with Hiccup’s prosthetic leg), it really isn’t an owner/pet dynamic. They are on equal footing always.
And then, of course, there’s the vivid animation, which keeps improving with each installment. Like the last film, there’s a major focus on the dragons’ eyes. They’re wonderfully rendered and expressive, and seeing the reflection of other parties through their eyes adds to the emotional engagement with the audience. You can literally see love forming in Toothless’ eyes for the Light Fury, and from her in return. When Hiccup and Astrid finally see the Hidden World, it’s a panoply of light, with thousands of luminous rocks and spires. Even Astrid’s dragon Stormfly is bathed in a neon glow on par with the guardian spirit animals of Coco‘s Land of the Dead.
It all serves the lesson that there comes a time when you have to move on, to get out of your comfort zone and take a risk to do what’s best for you and for those you love. And sometimes that means letting go of those loved ones, so that they can do what’s best for them. For those of us who have enjoyed this series, it all comes to a fitting end, warts and all. We get to say goodbye to some great characters on the right terms, and maybe shed a tear or two in the process.
Let us hope that Dreamworks doesn’t fuck it all up by rebooting or spinning off a new series in five years.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of the series? Will Flat Earthers feel justified by this movie’s jokes about how silly a round world sounds? Let me know!