Writer/director Dean DeBlois skillfully brings the beloved and much-lauded “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise in for a landing with the third film in the series, “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” Based on the books by Cressida Crowell, audiences fell in love with the relationship between Viking boy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon steed Toothless in 2010’s “How To Train Your Dragon” and 2014’s “How To Train Your Dragon 2.” With “The Hidden World,” DeBlois brings the story to a close – or at least a stopping place – in a film that is as emotionally moving as it is beautifully made.
At the center is Hiccup and Toothless, who forged a union between man and dragon with their unlikely friendship and unbreakable bond. Hiccup is now the Viking chief of his homeland, Berk, and he’s created a utopia where humans and dragons live in harmony in an idyllic slice of paradise. But their penchant for raiding dragon-poaching trading ships to rescue new friends draws the attention of many nefarious types, including, most dangerously, dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who has his sights set on the last Night Fury dragon, Toothless. Protecting his brood, Hiccup sets off in search of the Hidden World his father once spoke of, where dragons live in peace.
It’s a rather simple story, but it’s imbued with not only the audience’s affection for Hiccup and Toothless, but the emotion that arises when Hiccup realizes change is necessary, and that friendships evolve as individuals grow. As the new chief, Hiccup has to take on a leadership role and possibly marry his intended, Astrid (America Ferrera). Toothless himself has his own journey to follow, especially when his own love interest arrives, a sleek white dragon they dub “The Light Fury.”
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“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” strikes a tricky tonal balance between epic and silly. The animation is unbelievably stunning, with nearly photorealistic waves crashing and breathtaking landscape shots. There is a painterly treatment to light and shadow, with watercolor sunsets and fire shining through mist. But it’s also pure fantasy, and some elements of the character design – especially of the Light Fury – recall 1970s-style animation, such as the Rankin/Bass production of “The Last Unicorn.” The film feels timeless, especially with John Powell’s epic score soaring underneath the action.
The one aspect of “The Hidden World” that places it squarely in its time is the juvenile banter courtesy of Hiccup and Astrid’s Viking crew, who sling slang around with a surfer brah delivery, quarreling and quibbling over the most trivial of matters. The characters offer some background color and humor, but their stories aren’t developed and any subplots are tissue-thin at best. What’s most important to the story are Hiccup and Toothless, anything else is a distraction. Toothless and the Light Fury are magnetically captivating to watch in their fluid movements and amusing wordless communications, and they speak volumes more than the overly chatty Viking pals.
Through all of the raids and kidnappings and hoopla, “The Hidden World” brings it home with an enormously moving message about learning to stand – and fly – on your own, and the healing power of friendship. The finale to the franchise will fly away with your heart.
starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig. Directed by Dean DeBlois. Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor. Running time: 1:44