Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
A Strap-On (Tail) Makes the World Go Round
There’s a sense of satisfaction after viewing How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; a sigh that isn’t of relief but more of a deep breath followed by a trembling exhale that is usually associated with accomplishment like after you finish a magnificent book or when you listen to your favorite music that gives you goosebumps. The film is a fitting conclusion to a wonderful franchise, but it’s also not without its faults.
A year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is still running around trying to save every dragon he comes across. Berk has become overrun and the flying creatures are practically an infestation. However, Berkians have not only adjusted to living with them they’ve come to enjoy it and see them as beloved family members. Hiccup’s father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), used to tell him about a hidden world that was a paradise for dragons but it was believed to be a myth. With Berk overpopulated, Hiccup intends to make The Hidden World the new home for both his people and the dragons. A dragon hunter named Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) took pride in wiping out the Night Furies, but when he gets word that Toothless survived Grimmel’s onslaught he makes Hiccup’s buddy his top priority. A female White Fury (or Light Fury) is used as bait to lure Toothless into becoming putty in Grimmel’s relentless grasp.
It’s unusual that Hiccup is still struggling to overcome that next hump of maturity in The Hidden World. You’d think that watching your father die and becoming Viking chief of Berk would force him into full-on manhood. Hiccup still doubts himself and has yet to fully commit to being the man in Astrid’s (America Ferrera) life. His ideals aren’t the ones of a confident leader as they still seem to grasp at straws and are on the verge of fantastical like the mind of a young boy instead of a man. The Hidden World toys with Hiccup coming to terms with himself and realizing that he’s someone worth following.
The weirdness comes in the sheer devotion The Hidden World gives to the love ritual that develops between Toothless and the Light Fury. You suddenly feel like you’re watching a mating ceremony for half of the film; a National Geographic special for kids since there are silly faces and funny dances in between the implied fornication. While Hiccup is off becoming his own leader, Toothless is figuring out that he can survive away from Hiccup. His time with the Light Fury opens up brand new abilities he’s never had before. Flying is suddenly this intimate kind of freedom for Toothless that he only wants to share with his soul mate.
You want more out of Grimmel as a villain. Attempting to make an impact after Drago in the previous film is a huge feat. While there’s something intriguing to Grimmel’s desire for a love of the hunt and his deathgripper dragons are way cooler than they have any right to be, he fails to make an impact as a memorable villainous character. His ability to manipulate both Hiccup and Toothless is a devastating skill to have, but Grimmel’s weak personality is basically consumed by his own thirst for that good hunt. The character has little depth throughout the film and he fizzles out of the viewer’s brain by the time the end credits roll.
The Hidden World itself is a bit of a letdown, as well. Its introduction, the way everything plays out, and its visuals are so similar to when Jake Sully visits Pandora in Avatar. There’s bound to be comparisons to other films whenever a new film or sequel comes along, but as a fan of this franchise you feel as though writer and director Dean DeBlois (who is known for writing and directing all of the How to Train Your Dragon films and Lilo and Stitch) is more creative and inventive than coming up with a story that feels as familiar this.
There are a lot of shortcomings to How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, but its finale feels like perfection. It is a necessary kind of heartbreak needed for Hiccup, Toothless, Berk, and every other dragon and character you’ve grown to love over the past decade. This sequel is about taking that final leap into adulthood and following your own individual path to do so. The epilogue is like a hopeful outlook that sends adults and children home happy while also offering this voiceover that could serve as potential for a future sequel or be a fulfilling end to an animated trilogy that is nine-years-old.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may not be as good as its predecessor, the kid-friendly dragon pornography is a bit overwhelming at times, the villain is a bit of a pushover, and the film’s big reveal feels like something that has been done to death, but it’s a sequel that holds your emotions in the palm of its hand. The Hiccup/Toothless relationship is the heart of these films and The Hidden World not only expands on that but gives meaning to their time apart, as well.
From a personal standpoint, there was a desire for The Hidden World to feel more devastating and tragic but in a way that would just be repeating what the previous sequel accomplished so well. It’s not that The Hidden World isn’t a worthwhile expedition; you just wish it had the courage to go into uncharted territory more often. The film is too safe and relies on the commonplace tendencies associated with animated movie formulas like a crutch and it’s disappointing since these characters can soar so high when they’re given the opportunity.
© 2019 Chris Sawin