A disappointing end to the trilogy.
After the blockbuster success of How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg did what any studio boss would after a surprise smash hit: announce multiple sequels. He claimed that there were two additional stories to be told to form a trilogy, with the potential for more in the future. With a lucrative franchise now firmly in the hands of Dreamworks, why would they tone down their aspirations for future instalments? It took four years for a sequel to get made, because writer/director Dean DeBlois wanted to take time to focus on the story (citing The Empire Strikes Back as an inspiration), and to make sure it perfectly planted the seeds for a third and final film.
The results paid off, as the sequel was every bit as lovingly crafted as its predecessor, taking us deeper into this painstakingly detailed universe and finding more emotional resonance within. So, the sustained waiting period of five years following that sequel for the final chapter in the trilogy (originally slated for 2016) wasn’t necessarily a problem – DeBlois has already shown that he’s responsible for the rare Hollywood animation production where extended delays are all beneficial to the quality of the final product. But How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, although perfectly enjoyable, feels more like a run of the mill animated franchise product when compared to its predecessors. It’s enjoyable in the moment, but afterwards, will feel increasingly like a disappointing way to end such a wonderful trilogy.
Set one year after the sequel, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World reintroduces us to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who now leads his group of dragon rider friends to rescue dragons from various kingdoms and move them to his island of Berk, where dragons and humans now live happily together. One day, his dragon Toothless discovers a dragon called Night Fury in the surrounding woods and falls in love – only for Hiccup to notice that she’s being used as bait, so dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) can capture Toothless for himself. Sensing that Berk is no longer safe, Hiccup hatches a plan to discover the mythical “hidden world” of dragons, rehoming everybody on the island there, away from the terror of the dragon hunters.
The Hidden World is a straightforward adventure film, with the deeper emotional arcs that proved vital to the previous stories only materialising in the film’s final stretch, and feeling like an afterthought as a result. This doesn’t feel like the planned conclusion to a trilogy, so much as it feels like the result of interference from a studio nervous at the commercial prospects of a movie arriving half a decade after the previous franchise entry. There seems to be an assumption that audiences will have forgotten all but the broad strokes of these characters, so focus is moved entirely to crafting exciting, not to mention visually stunning, sequences instead.
It’s suitably thrilling, and there are moments of wonder that feel like the franchise at its best, but there’s a lack of focus on the small scale stories of family and friendship that are at the core of these films. There are all the thrills you want from a How to Train your Dragon movie, but when the character arcs are so secondary around them, the set pieces feel ever so slightly generic by default – an issue that even the wondrous animation cannot entirely paper over, even if it is still jaw droppingly stunning when viewed on its own. Character arcs feel rushed so as to move the plot along. Toothless falls in love with the other dragon at first sight for plot conveniences, the pressure Hiccup faces to marry Astrid (America Ferrera) turns from a recurring gag to sincerity without any prior warning, and as for the rest of Hiccup’s dragon rider friends, we get forced sequences of their rivalries for seemingly no other reason than to invite the likes of Jonah Hill and Kit Harrington back into the fold.
DeBlois originally stated that the second film would directly play into the third, with characters introduced in the previous instalment getting centre stage here. This plan seems to have gone out of the window; Hiccup’s relationship with his long lost mother (Cate Blanchett) was so vital to the second film, but in the Hidden World, is notable in its absence both thematically and narratively. The time jump between the second and third stories seems to have removed any dramatic intrigue from the equation; we’re treated to a stock villain as the main source of tension, with the small scale family dynamics of the previous films, which helped amplify their emotional stakes, sorely lacking here.
There are numerous sequences so stunning in their design that this still feels like required viewing on the big screen. The first trip to the Hidden World is one of the most remarkable moments this franchise has achieved, and can’t help but make the lack of a more emotionally resonant story to compliment the sweeping grandeur of the visuals feel all the more disappointing. It’s the sort of film where it’s hard not to sound more critical in my assessment than I actually feel; it’s enjoyable family entertainment, but it becomes a resounding disappointment when placed next to the two superior films that preceded it.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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