During a flashback sequence in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – the third and final entry in Dreamworks Animation’s critically-acclaimed trilogy – Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) tells his young son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) that “Love comes with the great price of loss.” It’s a hefty message for a “kid’s movie,” one that treats its target audience with respect, and trusts that they’re mature enough for it. It’s also a fitting message, seeing as the How to Train Your Dragon series began at the dawn of the 2010s, the series now seems to be bookending the movie decade, with many of those who watched the original in theaters as children now adults themselves.
That’s why I wish I could say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World lived up to that message. The Hidden World may earn brownie points for never talking down to its young demographic, but like both of its predecessors, it ultimately plays things safe in terms of narrative structure. And what could have been a deep, melancholic change of pace for the franchise is unfortunately a missed opportunity in a rather by-the-books animated adventure.
That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is bad by any means. But I’ve always felt that this franchise’s acclaim has been a little misplaced, with most of its praise stemming from the fact that it was a Dreamworks franchise not built on sarcasm (admittedly a novelty for the studio), as opposed to anything remotely resembling Pixar levels of storytelling and thematic invention. How to Train Your Dragon was always a good series, just not really special in the way its acclaim might have you believe. In that sense, The Hidden World lives up to its predecessors’ quality, but it’s a shame that this final entry couldn’t ascend into something more than the series’ “solid but safe” status.
Taking place one year after the defeat of Drago Bludvist and the death of Stoic the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World sees Hiccup as the new chieftain 0f the vikings of Berk. And Hiccup’s pet dragon (a ‘Night Fury’ to be precise), Toothless, is the alpha dragon of Berk. With vikings and dragons finally coexisting in peace, Berk seems like a paradise.
Hiccup and his friends – including his now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) – have been freeing dragons from less open-minded vikings, and bringing them to Berk as a kind of dragon utopia. But this eventually riles the ire of several viking warlords, who recruit the infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) – the man responsible for sending Night Furies to the brink of extinction – to hunt Toothless and claim Berk’s army of dragons.
Grimmel proves to be a cunning foe, and eludes Berk’s attempts to thwart him. Out of desperation, Hiccups commands the citizens and dragons of Berk to find a new home, on their journey to find the fabled “Hidden World” which can serve as a sanctuary for dragons, outside of human reach. But Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve, a female “Light Fury,” which he plans on using to lure Toothless out of hiding.
It’s a straightforward plot, but one that feels epic in buildup, but ultimately misses its potential in execution. The Hidden World retains the series’ standard hour and a half runtime, but the story at hand feels like it needs more. As a result of cramming in an epic scope into a shorter runtime, many key moments in the film fly by pretty quickly. When what I assumed to be another action set piece ended up being the climax of the film, it really became apparent how rushed the film can feel. It leaves both the big action scenarios and the key emotional moments feeling a tad underwhelming.
Another persistent issue with the franchise which is still at play here is that there are too many side characters. We have Hiccup and Astrid’s friends; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristin Wiig and Justin Rupple), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as well as Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Berk’s resident blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and enemy-turned ally Eret (Kit Harington). This abundance of side characters may not have been an issue, if not for the fact that – aside from Valka and Eret – they are all played entirely for comic relief, which basically makes them interchangeable. Once again, if the film were given more time to develop these characters, they may have been a little more than their introductory punchlines. Yet here we are at the end of the series and that’s still where they are.
Of course, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is still sweet and memorable. Additionally, the relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury is a cute, Lady and the Tramp-style romantic subplot. And I do have to admit, Grimmel is a step up from Bludvist in the bad guy department.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still showcases the strengths of the series: The animation is often stunningly beautiful, the various creature designs for the dragons are cute and charming, and the music is as gorgeous and epic as ever. Like its predecessors, the things that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does well, it does very well. But the disappointing thing is that, in terms of story, the franchise has done very little to stand out on a narrative or thematic level. And more so than the past two entries, The Hidden World suffers from its relatively short running time (plenty of animated films aimed at children reach the two hour mark these days. And when trying to tell a story on this scale, the extra time really could have helped).
The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy can at hold its head high knowing that all three of its acts are genuine efforts that are sure to please fans. But it is a bit of a shame that its storytelling capabilities never really evolved beyond tried-and-true animated conventions. Still, a consistent trilogy is hard to come by, and fans of How to Train Your Dragon will be happy to know that their series is one of the few to have pulled it off.
8 thoughts on “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review”
Great review! I love this series and can’t wait to see this one! I just posted on dragons too! LOL!
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I actually ended up watching all three films this past week. I thought the first was great while the second, though not as good, was a solid follow-up. This one, on the other hand, is my least favorite for a number of reasons. As you say, there are indeed more characters than they know what to do with and many of them have little value outside of comic relief; as a result, the tone seems to be all over the map. Also, I have to say the villain is pretty lame. He kind of reminds me a little of Bowser in that he is a legitimate threat, but he isn’t a particularly intimidating one. Given that it is his actions that catalyze the plot and therefore make the resolution necessary, it’s not good that such a lackluster character was responsible.
Finally, I also have to say I wasn’t really a fan of the ending itself. I give the writers points for being brave enough to go for the bittersweet ending, but I just don’t think it works. As you know, I’m absolutely not a fan of the “humans are scum” trope because it’s been done to death over this last decade to the point where I legitimately don’t think there is new ground you can cover with it anymore. The film choosing to brazenly use it the way they did really dates the film to the exact year that spawned it while the previous two films didn’t have this problem (it was used to a lesser extent in the second film, but it was rightly placed in the background). All in all, it’s far from bad, but it was disappointing.
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No need to insult Bowser by comparing this guy to him. 😛
At least Bowser’s role makes sense, given that the Mario universe is innately silly. But having a similar villain in a story that’s trying to be something epic and serious doesn’t quite work.
I definitely get what you mean about the ending. I respect going for the bittersweet ending. But there are a few reasons it didn’t work.
I thought the whole “ten years later” bit undermined the very theme of the movie of “with love comes loss.” It’s a similar problem I had to 2012’s Frankenweenie, though admittedly not nearly as blatant. Yes, these are kids’ movies, but they wisely don’t talk down to their young audience in terms of narrative, but kind of back-pedal when it comes to thematic elements.
Having recently lost my dog and currently going through another family tragedy, I feel more strongly than usual that it’s important to show (especially to young audiences) that loss is something permanent, but something you can heal and recover from. Not that I’m saying the dragons needed to die or anything that grim, but the fact that the characters can literally just go and visit the dragons kind of negates the whole theme of loss. It’s more akin to someone moving away than it is a genuine sense of loss.
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That’s why I drew that comparison; the villain of this film just doesn’t fit with what the writers are trying to do. If he had the same no-nonsense feel to him as his predecessor, it would have been far more effective. As it stands, he’s kind of a doofus – a threatening one, but a doofus nonetheless.
And you’re right; when they go for an ending like this, they should either go full tilt with the idea or not bother with it at all. Loss is a difficult subject to talk about, and you need to discuss it tactfully, yet honestly.
Also, I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with a family tragedy right now. I hope all of you are pulling through.
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I’ve just watched this movie, and my feelings were similar to the previous ones, they’re fine films with some phenomenal visuals, and I respect Dreamworks going for something less satirical for a change, but I can’t say they go much above and beyond from there. It’s not really stuff I’d revisit or put a priority in a recommendations list.
As far as Dreamworks is concerned, I’d say Kung Fu Panda was a more solid trilogy, with generally better action and stories to tell, not to speak of the villains being a lot more entertaining than whatever the Dragon films were trying to pull off in the 2nd and 3rd installment.
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Kung Fu Panda is such a better series. Kung Fu Panda 2, in particular, might be my favorite Dreamworks animated film.