A seven-year-old who saw the original “How To Train Your Dragon” in 2010 would now enter the theater to see “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” as a 16-year-old teen.
A generation of fans grew up with these movies, and Dean DeBlois, director of all three films, takes that relationship seriously. The third film brings the series to a graceful and exciting conclusion that will enthrall today’s seven-year-olds while adding some misty-eyed poignancy for those longtime fans. And, of course, for their parents, who can’t believe how time has flown by either.
In the original “Dragon,” Vikings living on an island named Berk waged war against the dragons they thought were a deadly threat. Misfit young hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) befriended a mysterious black dragon, Toothless, and discovered the dragons were merely misunderstood. It was the Vikings who had to change their stripes and learn to trust the dragons. The movie might have been more accurately titled “How To Train Your Viking.”
In the third film, a 20ish Hiccup now leads Berk, where dragons and Vikings live in perfect harmony. In fact, the sky above Berk is so thick with dragons that it’s straining Berk’s resources and making the little seaside village a target for dragon poachers, like the villainous Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham).
Hiccup remembers stories his father (Gerard Butler) used to tell about a dragon homeland, the hidden world, where evil humans like Grimmel couldn’t go. He suggests that the people of Berk abandon their home and go on a quest to find sanctuary in the hidden world.
What makes “The Hidden World” so satisfying is not so much the quest plot, although the battles and chase scenes that come with it are undeniably exciting. This is the only animated franchise that I would make a point of seeing in 3D, as Dreamworks’ team of animators use three dimensions so wonderfully in these aerial dragon dogfights.
But as visually splendid as it is, “Dragon 3” is at its best when it focuses on the strength of Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship, and their concern that they may be growing apart as they grow up.
Both have parallel love stories complicating their lives. Just as Hiccup’s relationship with fellow warrior Astrid (America Ferrara) is turning more serious, so Toothless may have found a mate in a rare ivory dragon. The dragons' courtship scene, tentatively bobbing and darting around each other as they soar in the sky, has the wordless magic of a moment from a Hayao Mayazaki film.
The film does justice to the large supporting cast, with Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse providing comic relief as Hiccup’s friends, and Cate Blanchett bringing gravitas as his now-widowed mother. The dragon designs remain inventive, especially the new piranha-like little dragons called HobGobblers introduced in this film.
Like the “Toy Story” trilogy, in which Woody and Buzz had to grapple with seeing Andy grow up before their eyes, the “Dragon” movies have been acutely aware of the passage of time. “The Hidden World” brings the saga to a moving and definitive close. While animated sequels can often be hit or miss — for every “Incredibles 2” there’s a “Monsters University” — the “Dragon” series has kept a consistently high quality, and feels like one large, unified story across three films.
I hope DeBlois isn’t tempted by box office potential to make a fourth (although of course I’m seeing “Toy Story 4” this summer — I mean, c’mon). Leave the original, wonderful trilogy as is, ready to take flight with future generations of young fans.