A Fond Farewell

When one thinks of trilogies, it is only natural that the last one of their three legs be perceived as both a culmination and a conclusion to all that came before them. These final chapters do not exactly need to topple their predecessors in terms of artistic value, originality, or sheer quality. However, they do have to feel satisfying in how they bring to an end arches that started being constructed back when audiences were first invited into the fictional world where their stories take place.

If one assumes that such a requirement is everything for the closing act of a trilogy to be successful, then How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a loud victory, for it touches on subjects and threads that were an integral part of its prequels, thrives in how it revisits them from a slightly different perspective, and concludes its flight by bringing meaningful closure to themes that had been bubbling under the franchise’s surface ever since it came to life in 2010. Yet, despite the undeniable competency that it displays in that matter, The Hidden World ends up feeling somewhat shy; as if even in the face of the emotional weight it holds, the – presumably – last full-length picture of the beloved saga fails to build on the scale of its preceding entries.

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As the product of a company, DreamWorks Animation, that has historically traded quality for prolificness, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise always stood out positively. Because although it never ranked among the studios’ biggest commercial successes, as those positions are firmly held by Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda, it achieved a level of critical acclaim – by professionals and audiences alike – not touched upon by any of those properties or their many sequels, with the exception of the first adventure of the world’s most popular green ogre.

Additionally, the fact it ran away from the formulaic nature of the other products of the company, be it in their focus on anthropomorphic animals or in their bland scripts, often drew comparisons between what DreamWorks had achieved with How to Train Your Dragon and the works of Pixar, making the franchise feel like the point where the studio came the closest to capturing a kind of animated magic that the folks responsible for the creation of Toy Story seemed to reproduce over and over again.

Undoubtedly, that context makes The Hidden World land on theaters worldwide with a whole lot riding on its back. It has to take beloved characters and a universe of wonder home satisfactorily. It has to neatly wrap up recurring themes. And it has to live up to two films of Pixar-caliber quality; one that introduced fans to a realm where Vikings and dragons learned to live side by side and another that found a way to greatly augment the stakes, size, urgency, danger, thrill, and heart of its predecessor.

Out of those challenges, The Hidden World easily leaps over the first two, as the movie sees Hiccup fully maturing as the leader of Berk, his relationship with Astrid grow organically and sweetly, his friendship with Toothless develop, and the volatile coexistence between the human race and dragons reach a pacific resolution. It is the last one with which it has a bit of trouble, for the conflicts, themes, and battles it contains do not quite come together to form an experience that has the impact one would expect from the final chapter of the brightest, and invariably excellent, property under a popular studio’s belt.

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When The Hidden World starts, Hiccup is generally well-settled as the chief of Berk, as he leads his young friends in raids against the ships of dragon hunters in order to set the creatures free and take them back to the village. As a consequence, Berk becomes a utopia where humans and dragons live in perfect synergy. However, as poachers become increasingly frustrated by their losses and the dragon population of Berk soars into the hundreds, the place soon turns into an easy and desirable target to those who see the flying lizards as enemies. Such reality hits hard when, one night, Hiccup is surprised in his home by Grimmel, a legendary hunter that calmly boasts he will catch Toothless and use his power as the alpha of Berk’s dragon horde to take all of the creatures away. Hiccup tries to capture Grimmel, but he escapes and sets much of the village on fire. Realizing danger is imminent and the death of the dragons is certain if no action is taken, Hiccup remembers a tale told by his father that spoke of a hidden dragon sanctuary at the edge of the world and vows to find it.

For humans, dragons, and the relationship between them, The Hidden World is definitely not lacking in development. Grimmel’s secret and unexpected weapon in his attempt to put Toothless in chains is a female specimen of the dragon’s race, with whom the creature promptly falls in love. With all parties completely unaware that the natural and adorable bonding between the pair is a ploy by the hunter, Hiccup reluctantly sets him free to mate.

Consequently, the movie juggles disparate threads: the journey of the population of Berk as they move away as a group to look for the dragon paradise; the silent threat constantly posed by Grimmel; the nascent love between Toothless and the female Night Fury; and the challenge Hiccup faces of standing strong as the leader of Berk without the frequent presence of his dragon and as his people search for a new home. It is a lot to handle, but the movie does a good job in treating those pieces separately and eventually joining them to reach both a great climax, which is worthy of the franchise’s spectacular battle scenes, and a touching conclusion, even if there is some degree of predictability in how it all develops and ends.

The main problem that the movie encounters, however, has some relation to how it apparently bites more than it can chew. With less than two hours of running time, a range of length that was sufficient for its prequels to treat their storylines, The Hidden World embraces so many plots and it has to deal with them in such a relatively brief amount of time that all of them would have benefited from some extra scenes to cook. Big decisions are made too quickly when they clearly could have been employed to generate conflict; and problems are solved without ever having the time to truly seep in or look insurmountable.

In a way, the smoothness with which those blocks are removed winds up hitting the antagonist himself. Because in spite of how the danger created by Grimmel does lead the population of Berk to take their most drastic course of action yet – that is, abandoning the place where they had lived for generations; the obstacles that his actions generate do not amount to barriers large enough to match those that were dealt with in the first two movies of the franchise. Due to that, even though The Hidden World checks, in terms of development, all the boxes one wants out of the conclusion of a trilogy, it ends up having a less notable impact than its prequels.

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There are, however, areas where The Hidden World matches, or perhaps surpasses, its predecessors. Visually, it is splendorous, whether it is in the technical prowess of its animation or in the eye-popping beauty of its scenarios, as the overcrowded Berk and the dragon paradise rank among the most beautiful CGI set pieces to ever be projected onto the silver screen. Thematically, the film is equally strong, for the subject of maturity, the franchise’s guiding light ever since the original How to Train Your Dragon, gains resonance via the choices Hiccup is forced to make.

The Hidden World shows that the process of maturing rarely comes without its costs and it exposes how that road is often paved with the understanding that personal sacrifices are sometimes necessary, and that coming to grips with the scars they leave behind – regardless how long that takes – is part and parcel of life itself. Those ideas are presented effectively and in a way that does not feel forced; moreover, they support a movie that is thoroughly enjoyable despite its issues and that is bound to leave viewers emotional when they realize it is time to say farewell to the beloved saga.

As such, even if How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World could indeed have been a better film, it plays its role as the final chapter of the franchise very well. The arches that it started to build in its debut are concluded sweetly and in a satisfying manner; the themes and ideas it always relied on evolve alongside its likable cast of characters; and the enchanting universe that served as its home reaches the end of its finely developed cycle. The fact the movie’s brisk pace undermines the impact of some of its conflicts and threats, then, winds up being just a small – yet certainly disappointing – dent on an armor of scales that is still shiny enough to make How to Train Your Dragon be a very rare sight not just in the animation niche, but in the movie industry as a whole; that is, a trilogy that was able to maintain a high level of quality from its glorious beginning until its lovable ending.

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11 thoughts on “A Fond Farewell

  1. I haven’t watched either of the previous two films, so maybe I’ll do so and see this one in theaters. It seems like the third entry in a given trilogy has trouble sticking the landing, so if this one does, that makes it worth looking into.

      1. It especially didn’t help The Godfather that Goodfellas was released around the same time as the somewhat ill-fated third installment. At least it was a case where the first two installments were self-contained, so if you didn’t like the final one, the damage was localized.

        1. I hadn’t thought about that connection to Goodfellas, but you have a point.

          And yeah, the damage wasn’t that big, because the first two movies work perfectly on their own.

  2. Personally, I think all the How to Train Your Dragon movies have been really safe, predictable movies, and never quite understood the hype and acclaim surrounding them. They’re good movies, but I really don’t see them as anything special. Personally, I think Kung Fu Panda was the better trilogy (even if the first and third entries fall into the same pitfalls a HtTyD). I like them alright, but they always felt pretty by the books to me.

    Still, great review, and I’m looking forward to see the third one. Not many trilogies have the opportunity to feel so closely associated with a respective decade. I can’t even think of another case where the first entry was released the first year of a decade, and the third and final being released in the last year of said decade.

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