How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a solid conclusion to a refreshingly genuine franchise
We are living in a cinematic era where franchises reign supreme, chugging along and shattering the box office with often little thought as to what makes them tick in the first place. It’s refreshing, then, that one of animation’s biggest running series, How to Train Your Dragon, has made a name for itself by being so genuinely full of heart. Whereas other animated films feel less human and more like uninspired light shows, even other works its own Dreamworks studio, HTTYD is a franchise that never fails to find nuance and emotional impact in its tale of Vikings and dragons. It taps into the special relationship between ourselves and the natural world, all the while exhibiting a knack for emulating live-action cinematography that only strengthens its standing as a truly special franchise.
Luckily, its inevitable conclusion How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is no different. This series capper is an endlessly gorgeous exercise in animation that pushes its style in new directions while simultaneously wrapping up Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, This Is the End) and Toothless’s arc in an intelligent way. Set a year after the previous film, this entry follows the duo as they lead the Berkians to a new home in the face of danger posed by a world now keenly aware of the clan’s special relationship with dragons. Leading the charge against them is Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, The Grand Budapest Hotel), a legendary dragon hunter who pushed Toothless’s species (the Night Furies) into near extinction. Looking to lure Toothless out of Hiccup’s protection, Grimmel baits him with a mate (dubbed the “Light Fury”), sending the heroes down the path that would lead them to the titular Hidden World, the Eden where all dragons come from.
The potential of this premise lays largely in where series creator Dean DeBlois gets to push the animation, and he and his animation take the already breathtaking series to new heights. Something that has made this series special is the involvement of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who serves as a visual consultant once again here, and his work has immediate and obvious impact on the look of the film. From the first shots, light and framing operates in a way you see in almost no other big-budget animated works; flame dances in the fog, dragons fly exquisitely lit storms and auroras, and the Hidden World itself bursts with color. Like the true masters of the craft, from Hayao Miyazaki to Brad Bird, DeBlois has learned when to be patient with the medium and when to play his cards, making every moment of grandeur worth the build-up. It all comes together to make the film feel like the most unique entry, even if its plot doesn’t exactly achieve the same level of success.
Like its direct predecessor, one nitpick you could level at The Hidden World is that its plot never reaches the emotional heights of the original film. While it still packs a punch and these characters as charming as ever, this is a film you can largely predict the plot of just by looking at the poster. It feels more a collection of dazzling set-pieces strung together by a bare-bones narrative, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the character development that made these characters so special is again held back. Hiccup, while still one of the most likable leads of any running animated series, feels largely in the same place he was at the conclusion of the previous film, and his arc here goes largely the way you expect. The budding relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury is a fun addition that will probably generate the most laughs of any element of the film, but it too doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. The one exception is perhaps Abraham’s Grimmel, who feels like the first genuinely menacing villain this series has seen and sees Abraham fully laying into what makes the character work. He’s a nasty, refreshingly complicated animated antagonist, and Abraham’s performance saves the films from diving too far into cliche territory.
Despite an obvious plot, this film does manage to recapture what makes this franchise so special: its sense of honesty. Unlike a lot of animated fare, which can feel like it’s proselytizing some very cliched ideas about family and relationships, The Hidden World takes steps to genuinely address the power of our connections to those we cherish, whether that be a pet or a loved one. The fact this series’s giant beasts are modeled after real-world animal companions, cats in particular, is no accident. It allows the film to whip up entertainment value with a fantastical world whilst keying into the everyday bonds that make us who we are. This element of the franchise is in fine form in the conclusion, imparting valuable lessons about the progression of relationships that are of value for both children in the audience and their parents.
Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is exactly the conclusion you would expect. That’s in no way a criticism, as you know you’re getting a visually marvelous spectacle that wraps up your time with some of the most charming characters of the modern animated era. You’ll just have to put aside any gripes with the obvious plot aside to get to what really makes this sequel soar. If you can do that, you’ll find a solid conclusion to one of the most surprising and well-intentioned franchises in recent memory.