Four-and-a-half years and three delays later, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has finally reached the theaters. As a person that adored the first How to Train Your Dragon and liked the sequel, the numerous release date push-backs and the little fanfare it received (its advertisement only started popping up a week before release in my experience) are troubling, to say the least—The Hidden World has all the marks of a messy movie about to be sent to die. Well, I am here to dispel that fear. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a pleasing conclusion to the story of Hiccup and Toothless.
A little older, and a little wiser, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) assumes the role of Berk’s chieftain and continues to lead the effort of rescuing and fostering dragons with Astrid (America Ferrera) at his side. The rest of Hiccup’s rowdy friends in new getups are back as firepower support and comic relief. New additions from the last movie such as Cate Blanchett and Kit Harington also returned to reprise their roles: Valka, the long-lost mother of Hiccup, and Eret, the reformed ex-dragon trapper. However, their involvement in the story is fairly light this time around, leaving the spotlight to Hiccup and Toothless.
Unfortunately for the peace-loving dragon riders, their raiding missions have put Berk on the radar of other dragon-enslaving warlords—yes, it turns out Drago Bludvist, the villain from HTTYD2, has quite a few like-minded acquaintances. The warlords turn to Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a dangerous dragon hunter that nearly hunted Night Furies to extinction, to stop Hiccup and steal Berk’s dragons. As if there isn’t enough on Hiccup’s plate, amidst the chaos caused by Grimmel’s attacks, Toothless fell in love with a white-scaled Night Fury (dubbed Light Fury by Astrid), and now Hiccup has to evacuate his people to the mythical birthplace of dragons with one rather absent Night Fury.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a gorgeous looking film. The visual improvements are immediately noticeable, and they become especially obvious when you put it side by side with the previous two films. The upgraded lighting produces richer colors and more realistic shadows (but the film is not going for the full photorealistic environmental look à la Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur). More impressive are the physics simulations of sand (of varying moisture levels) and volumetric cloud that adds texture to individual scenes—flying in the clouds with Toothless had never felt so immersive until now. Good Vikings of Berk and villains alike emote with nuanced and expressive animations—even the fleeting moments that may be too quick to catch are full of details! Toothless makes good use of his extended screen time on being his goofy self and the courtship of Light Fury—with John Powell’s beautiful soundtrack serving as the wordless flirtations between the adorable couple.
How to Train Your Dragon is among the all-time greatest animated features, and it proves to be a tough act to follow up by its sequels. HTTYD2 came close with an engaging family dynamic and a menacing villain, while The Hidden World trails behind 2. Don’t get me wrong, The Hidden World is still good, but it falls short at achieving the highs of its predecessors—I came out of the screening feeling a distinct lack of emotional punch compared to the first two movies.
If the story of Berk’s way of life is threatened by covetous dragon hunters sounds somewhat familiar, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The stake may sound high, but Berk has suffered worse before, thus the threat fails to build much tension. Abraham as a condescending brainiac can be fun at times, but in terms of intimidating presence, he is no match for Drago. Grimmel’s dragon arsenal is downright pitiful next to Drago’s armored dragon army.
Trust is a central theme of How to Train Your Dragon, and each film of the series has Hiccup’s belief challenged. The first and second HTTYD films’ journeys are inverse in their directions—one outward and the other one inward—and they complement each other beautifully. First, Hiccup proves the possibility of trust to the world—his peers and kins. Then in the sequel, Hiccup tests the strength of trust in a battle against a villain who is every bit the antithesis of what he and Toothless’s friendship stands for. But where does The Hidden World fit in? What is it trying to say?
The main theme of The Hidden World isn’t immediately made clear. It is muddled by retreading the weaker version of the same ideological conflict (while both Grimmel and Drago are “human supremacists”, Grimmel used extracted dragon venom to control the dragons instead of physical and mental domination), which took up precious time that could otherwise be given to the development of the film’s own ideas. The Hidden World does have something to say about the nature of human-dragon relationships and the meaning of love. But when The Hidden World starts to find its own voice, half of the film’s runtime has gone by.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World doesn’t shine as bright as its predecessors, however, the competent craftsmanship kept the film enjoyable from start to finish. The unfocused story that bites off more than the film could chew is certainly The Hidden World’s weakest part, but the shortcomings do not overshadow the charming spirit of the world and its inhabitants.
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