Crafting what some may consider “the perfect cinematic trilogy” is often shrouded in elusiveness equal to the figurative “needle in haystack” metaphor; often enough, it’s worth not dreading over, more celebrating when it’s achieved. The Godfather, Back to the Future, Richard Linklater’s Before series, all substantial three-prong attacks, as far as film masterpieces go; neither could be considered complete if one of the three is missing, sufficient enough as standalones they could be. For animated triads, only the Toy Story series (soon to be a quadrilogy, so it no longer counts) had permanently affixed the bar to a point where no three-pack could surpass.
So far, there may be no direct competitor, only a close neighbor. Even if the storytellers at DreamWorks couldn’t quite fly above the strong character development and emotional brevity shown in spades during the middle third of what may now be its most focused franchise property, I still knew there’d be much to enjoy out of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. The largest flaw to be found was that for all the worldbuilding expansion to be found, and despite a somewhat weaker villain character, it oughtn’t to have been the end for the plucky human Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his pet feline-esque reptile Toothless. Perhaps it’s just a new beginning if only that could be true.
Growing up before our eyes in a long nine-year span, the awkward teenage son-of-a-buff-Viking has assumed the role of chief, to the now overrun human-dragon hybrid island of Berk. With a firm head on his shoulders, he exudes true pride for his tribe, and toward his late father, the steadfast Stoick (Gerard Butler), whom he still subtly idolizes in adulthood. At such an age, as youthful as he appears when interacting with his best friend, Hiccup is aware it may be time to settle down, accept the lure of a proposal to his dear Astrid (America Ferrera). Toothless is no different, his eyes and heart catching wind of a dragon even rarer than himself, the mysterious, shining white Light Fury by which their conflicting flirtation styles develop into a real blossoming romance, during what may be the best animated moment in the whole film.
It also holds an overwhelming flavor of danger, with the nefarious dragon hunter Grimmel the Grizzly (a boisterous F. Murray Abraham) hot on their trail. With only a year having passed since Hiccup assumed control of Berk, his first real challenge looms as he considers moving the entire island to the titular Hidden World, long considered the dragons’ mythical haven. As the quest pushes forward, so too do relationships, to the point where they are indeed altered permanently, as nature often pushes with some minuscule volume of human intervention.
Most of the talented Viking cast does return in top form to maintain the series’ lighter side, particularly Berk’s “momma hen”, the recently rediscovered Valka (Cate Blanchett), senior dragon scout Eret (Game of Thrones fan fave Kit Harrington), and the cocky Top Gun-quality Dragon School crew led by Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig (perhaps the MVP of classy ADHD cartoon characters), and Craig Ferguson. Of course, for whatever reason or excuse, TJ Miller is sorrowfully absent as the sarcastic Tuffnut; fresh-faced standup comedian Justin Rupple delivers a substantial feature debut, even if it’s not quite much of a flattering impression as one would prefer.
Mr. Abraham, at 79 still a majestic character actor, punches in a wonderfully over-the-top villain part, akin to perhaps Salieri, or Ru’afo. Yet the character overall is the film’s biggest distraction, weighing down its emotional compass, leaving its motivation a bit tired in spots. I would’ve hoped for something closer to the room-shattering presence of King Drago (complete with the dulcet tones of Djimon Hounsou); Grimmel’s far less memorable, and a bit hard to take seriously, even with his army of violent, acid-spitting dragons determined to claim the Berkians for his own unique arsenal. Regrettably, he won’t offer much of a foil, barely serviceable with a few quaint moments to ratchet up the maturity level, but never rising above mere averages.
It’ll be best to just separate that subplot from literally the rest of the film, which soars quite high just on sustained uniquity, not entirely breaking new ground, but still tackling a few unexpected topics in that comfortable sphere of true love conquering, and that uncontrollable “call of the wild”, something writer-director Dean DeBlois (Lilo and Stitch) had been keen on working up to from the beginning. That breaking point has now been reached, welcomed with arms open to embrace while the tears flow freely, nominally in flashback form with a younger Hiccup bonding with his good ol’ dad.
As for our leads, where the chewy center stays, their friendship shines right up until the last moment, where the fear of being apart manifests into something far more truthful, with enough space to be poignantly comical while Toothless broadens his horizons to newfound freedom. Many of those evolutionary notes are collectively punctuated once more by the graceful chord strains of John Powell’s diversely ranging score, weaving and bobbing between the traditional instrumentation when closely personal, and a bit of experimental when wanting to be light off the feet; do keep an ear open for the lyrical prose of Iceland’s Jónsi further complimenting in song as before, even if there’s no utter surprise ala “The Dancing and the Dreaming”.
I can boldly profess that Hidden World doesn’t disappoint in its destined goal as a satisfactory trilogy-ender, carrying over its predecessors’ spirit, creativity and progressiveness, but crippled somewhat by its one fatal flaw, the need to incorporate a major baddie. While it wasn’t as large a sidetrack last time, it still could’ve been avoided or decreased in importance, focusing more on uniting a society with what was once feared, now formally appreciated. How it all ends is determined to laud the latter, where we fear adulthood and the cusp of moving on to the adventure that could follow. For the animators at DreamWorks, whose comeback is now assured, they are indeed moving on to something new, now under the close wings of Universal studio brass. For the fans who had grown up along with this trio of films, I know I can echo their enthusiasm. There was so much on display to lay groundwork down for the future; but ending after three, and perhaps sticking by it, that does feel more at home to that maturity, realistic yet no stranger to quirkiness, and knowing when it’s time to let go. Personally speaking, I may not be ready to. (A-)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor; 104 minutes.