The How to Train Your Dragon franchise is arguably Dreamworks’ best series, yet despite the films’ pulling significant numbers at the box office, and a spin-off television show, it still feels like one of the more overlooked animated franchises currently out there. Which is a shame, the HTTYD movies are some of the most mature and thoughtful animated flicks, and it’s a series that has taken its time (three movies spread throughout 9 years) and rewards fans for their patience each time. The Hidden World is no exception – it’s an emotionally satisfying end to the story that began back in 2010.
The Hidden World picks up a year after the defeat of Drago, and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Toothless, and the gang have been busting dragon hunters and bringing the rescued animals back home with them. They’ve been very successful, but the number of dragon hunters only seems to grow, and the more dragons that are brought back to Berk, the more overcrowded it gets, and the more it becomes a bigger and bigger target for enemies. Hiccup believes that the only solution is to seek out the mythical Hidden World, the land where all dragons supposedly come from. But a devious dragon killer named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is hot on their trail, determined to take all of their dragons, and Toothless is continuously distracted by the arrival of a female Night Fury, the first that anyone’s seen.
The Hidden World has all of the same strengths as its predecessors: gorgeous animation, breathtaking scenery, inspired dragon designs, and a deep, genuine heart to it all. It’s bizarre that these films continuously receive a smaller budget with each installment but perhaps it’s because they don’t really need the extra cash to create what they have in mind. What the HTTYD series has that sets it far above other Dreamworks’ projects is its grand sense of scale (pun intended). The series has become a true action/fantasy epic that’s sprawled across multiple lands and takes place over several years, most franchises this ambitious are rarely able to maintain themselves for as long as this one has.
The town of Berk is colorful and crowded as can be, filled to the brim with vikings and dragons of all different shapes and sizes. Just from a production standpoint, The Hidden World is massive, the titular location is nothing short of beautiful, and the multiple flight sequences through the gorgeous blue sky are as jaw dropping as they’ve always been. No other animated film has come close to matching the true sense of awe and majesty that these films have when it comes to their flying scenes, and John Powell’s bombastic score once again outdoes itself, adding on a whole new layer of grandiose.
The HTTYD series also has the most magnificent lightning I’ve ever witnessed in an animated series. The light and darkness of The Hidden World looks so completely natural and true that at times it can truly fool you into believing that they filmed at actual locations and stuck in animated characters later. When we’re with Hiccup and the rest of the vikings and dragons, it’s bright and open and freeing. When we’re with Grimmel and his minions, the light becomes murky and dreary, filled with drabby greens and dark yellows. It’s as if Grimmel’s very presence pollutes the ground and air around him, a clever visual metaphor for the film’s themes of the evils of man and industrialization against the natural world.
Grimmel himself is a menacing antagonist and a worthy final obstacle for the franchise. F. Murray Abraham is clearly having a blast, and his performance reigns in what could easily be a cheesy role and turns it into a truly venomous one. His motivations are largely a rehash of Drago’s from the second film, which is a bit of a disappointment, but whereas Drago was more of a physical threat, Grimmel is far smarter and more conniving. He never really ever defeats Hiccup and the gang in a fight, but he continuously outwits them, playing every one of them as if their battle is a game of chess.
The supporting cast, which boasts the likes of Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington, and others, is solid thanks to the tremendous talent behind it, but they’re mostly stuck as comic relief. If The Hidden World, and the HTTYD series as a whole, has any real flaws, it’s in the comedy. Hiccup’s friends just aren’t as funny as the film seems to think they are, and the endless stream of jokes can become tiresome. There are a couple that manage to stand out (like Jonah Hill’s character trying to get with Hiccup’s mom), but most fall flat, and without any interesting arcs for the gang happening in any of the films, they end up feeling like wasted characters that could’ve had potential. Luckily, the physical humor of Toothless trying to woo the female Night Fury is actually funny, bringing to mind the fantastic use of wordless storytelling that made Wall-E so great.
It’s just as well though, the core of these movies is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, which has grown from a standard “boy and his dog” narrative into a true friendship between two species. The Hidden World puts almost all of its focus on this, and it’s all the better for it. Hiccup and Toothless’ bond reaches its natural conclusion in the film, and while it’s predictable, it really is the only ending that could work. It’s nice to see a children’s film dive fully into lessons about growing up, letting go, and moving on – that kind of subject matter, and the way that it’s presented without babying the audience, is significantly deep, thought provoking, and of course, tear jerkingly emotional.
It’s that emotion and a true sense of the story coming to its end that makes The Hidden World so great. Hiccup and his friends have grown up with their audience, their story has been told across years and the characters have aged, experienced triumph and loss, and learned just as the fans have. The Hidden World isn’t a perfect movie, it might not even be the best in the franchise (the second one still holds that title for me), but it is a perfect end to a wonderful story. You’d be hard pressed to leave the theater with dry eyes.
The Hidden World has all of the same strengths and weaknesses as its two predecessors, but the good definitely outweighs the bad, making it an emotionally satisfying end to the trilogy.