I’ve seen this thing recently where people have been sharing stories about the last film to make them cry. Well, if I played that game I wouldn’t have to look back very far for my choice: How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, which I saw just four days. Not since Toy Story 3 has an animated trilogy’s finale left me such a teary-eyed mess. I want to talk about that, but first this:
No matter how many tickets they sell, toys they peddle, and TV shows they quietly place on Netflix, DreamWorks Animation is forever stuck as an also-ran in the animation wars. Disney and Pixar make timeless classics (insert “What about the Cars franchise and Monsters University?” joke here) with something profound to say about the world; DreamWorks churns out cute movies with a bunch of pop culture jokes to amuse all the parents who have been dragged to the theater by their kids. Not bad, per se, just not as good.
Fair or not, that’s been the narrative ever since Jeffrey Katzenberg formed DreamWorks as a direct challenger to Disney in the mid-90s and eventually hit gold with the Shrek franchise in the early 2000s. A LOT has changed since then. DreamWorks Animation is part of Universal now. Katzenberg is out, and none of his replacements have stuck in the job very long. The Feature division, for example, is on its third president in three years.
Beyond that, this is no longer as simple as DreamWorks Vs. Disney. All the major studios have their own animation divisions now. In fact, Universal has two of them since along with DreamWorks it can also turn to Illumination to fill out its family film release calendar. In such a moment of intense competition, you’d better aim for the moon and make something amazing. Thankfully, that’s exactly what DreamWorks just did.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the first DreamWorks title to bare the Universal label, is as lovely and moving as any animated movie could ever hope to be. In many ways, like every film in this particular franchise, it is the antithesis of the DreamWorks formula: it never undercuts its sincerity with meta humor, pop culture references, or poorly integrated pop songs. Instead, The Hidden World wears its earnestness like a badge of honor and actually has the foresight to know how to go out on top.
The story, not surprisingly, deals with loss. This is a franchise, beginning with 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and continuing with the 2014 sequel, which has never shied away from that especially tricky subject. In the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the teenage protagonist whose view of dragons as co-equal creatures worthy of respect registers as revolutionary among his small-minded Viking brethren, loses a leg in the final battle. In the second film, he loses his father.
Now, in the Hidden World, he might just lose Toothless, his prized dragon and best friend. Hiccup’s admirable efforts to free as many dragons as possible has resulted in his home, Berk, being overpopulated. Worse yet, it’s now an easy target for all of their enemies, who have been driven to such desperation that they hire sinister dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) to neutralize Toothless.
His method: distraction. As in, Hiccup really should be more suspicious when a female Night Fury (or Light Fury, as she’s later called) suddenly appears and entices Toothless away.
With Grimmel continually outsmarting Hiccup, the only path forward seems to be escaping and finding the mythical dragon homeworld. Surely, Hiccup figures, the people of Berk can live there with the dragons in peace (and in secret). But it soon becomes painfully obvious that the dragons are just too pure for this cruel, cruel world.
FYI: Most of the footage here comes from just the first half of the film:
What Makes It So Great (and Bittersweet)
The source material for all of this is technically British author Cressida Cowell’s fantasy book series, but writer-director Dean DeBlois, who has been with the franchise since the beginning, told EW he had some other inspirations in mind while crafting Hidden World, “Our ambition was always to weave a story that could stand alongside some of my favorite bittersweet endings, things like The Fox and the Hound or Born Free or E.T.”
Mission accomplished, I’d say.
The Hidden World dazzles throughout with best-in-franchise action sequences and visuals, including a serious uptick in both the quantity and variety of dragons we see on screen. The gnarly behemoths Grimmel controls, for example, are a sight to behold. It delivers a masterclass in almost completely dialogue-free animation via Toothless’s hilariously awful efforts to impress the Light Fury. He has Hiccup to blame for that, who is not the world’s greatest Cyrano stand-in.
But it’s the bittersweet ending you’ll most remember. Getting into spoiler territory here, but as someone who recently had to put a family pet of 16 years to sleep, I was not totally ready for where this movie ultimately goes with its story. Hiccup, now clearly sporting the beginnings of a beard, is right on the cusp of adulthood and with it far more responsibility (they keep teasing his inevitable marriage to kinda girlfriend Astrid). Toothless, animated so adorably like an especially emotive pet with a face which seems to be all eyes, is torn between wanting to be with his own kind and staying with his best friend.
Yet, the more the two of them try to remain a pair the more the world reminds them that humanity just isn’t worthy of something as magical and special as dragons. What we can offer, however, is enduring friendship, and no matter what The Hidden World reminds us Hiccup and Toothless will be best friends forever. When such a message is accentuated with a lovely John Powell score, brilliant animation, and committed vocal performances, well…Niagara Falls.
What Holds It Back from Perfection
As TotalFilm argued, “Hiccup’s dragon-riding mum Valka (Cate Blanchett), such a pivotal presence in HTTYD 2, cuts a worryingly peripheral figure this time around, while there are a few too many ‘comic’ shenanigans from the assorted Berkian sidekicks. Also, Grimmel’s hatred of Toothless is never satisfyingly explained.”
The Bottom Line
Look at me. I’m getting all verklempt. Better DreamWorks franchise, Shrek or How to Train Your Dragon? Discuss.
The Rating: ★★★★½
Random Parting Thought
There are 6 seasons of a How To Train Your Dragon TV show on Netflix as well as several short specials. Sampling some of them after seeing Hidden World, I’m slightly surprised to report that seemingly all of the voice actors from the movies reprised their roles on the show as well.