Film Reviews

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Is Pretty Much Perfect

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:

The Backstory

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.

The Movie

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 Plot

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.

The Trailer

FYI: Most of the footage here comes from just the first half of the film:

What Makes It So Great (and Bittersweet)

Night Fury dragon Toothless and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) in DreamWorks Animation’s “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” directed by Dean DeBlois.

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.

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17 comments

  1. I have a strange relationship with the HTTYD Franchise. It’s a little bit like my feeling towards the Toy Story franchise: I don’t dislike either, but I just don’t get why those are THAT beloved. In the case of HTTYD, I like the movies just fine, but I also think that the movies are predictable and the characters a little bit to flat for my taste.

    Thus said: I am calling it now, HTTYD3 will get the Academy award this year. Because I know what the other studios will release, and unless there is an extreme surprise, it will be the movie which stands out for finishing a trilogy in a dignified manner (well, that is assuming that this will stay being a trilogy…I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s dreamworks after all, the will find a way to milk it should it be too successful).

    1. I get what you’re saying about HTTYD. In fact, I agree with you. I’ve never been a huge fan of the franchise. Like most DreamWorks movies, I thought they were perfectly fine, but ultimately unremarkable. Hiccup and Toothless are great central characters, but the supporting cast is pretty uniformly flat, as you say.

      The Hidden World, however, just blew me away. There’s a depth to it I wasn’t expecting, and while Hiccup’s friends remains flat and not as funny as they should be it didn’t really detract too much from the overall movie for me.

      Re: Oscars.

      Interestingly, the EW article I quoted actually has a quick little blurb next to it where they make a similar “ridiculously early Oscar prediction”. They didn’t outright say Hidden World will win but argued we shouldn’t simply assume either Toy Story 4 or Frozen 2 will win, not with the best-in-franchise critical reception Hidden World has received. I’m sort of with them on that. It’s just way too early to predict a HTTYD 3 win, not with how good the Frozen 2 trailer looks and looming possibility that Toy Story 4 might be better than expected, but this time next year I will be very surprised if Hidden World isn’t at least in the conversation for Best Animated Feature.

      I don’t, however, really see any of 2019’s other animated movies supplanting those three as the front-runners. There will almost definitely be one token foreign selection and the rest will probably be American movies. That’s how it has gone ever since they changed the way the films are nominated in the category. So, that leaves just one slot left for an American movie.

      The choices: Wonder Park, Ugly Dolls, The Secret Life of Pets 2, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Spies in Disguise, Abominable, The Addams Family, Sonic The Hedgehog, and The Call of the Wild. Feels like a coin toss as to which one of those might rise above the rest, partially because after Spies in Disguise I simply didn’t know anything about the rest of the movies.

      1. Let’s be realistic: Toy Story 4 will fail to capture the feelings Toy Story 3 created, and while I won’t write off Frozen 2 completely, well, it is kind of unlikely that the academy will award the same franchise twice. They are kind of reluctant in this regard. Both movies would have to be not just good, but amaaaaazing.

        I won’t dismiss Spies in Disguise just yet, but overall, I suspect that foreign movies might grab some slots. Something not even on our radar yet.

      2. Toy Story 4, as far as awards go, definitely has the feel of “just happy to be nominated.” Frozen 2 is a bit more of an unknown, and you’re estimation is correct about the Academy being reluctant to award sequels unless they’re truly extraordinary, as was the case with Toy Story 3 since it got a Best Picture nomination along with its Best Animated Feature Win. I am optimistic about Spies in Disguise, and as you said I fully expect there to be several foreign titles which we’ll never see coming.

      3. Yeah, that it was also nominated for best picture which pretty much made it a shoe in (plus, part 1 and 2 never got the award, the first one because the award didn’t even exist when the movie got released, and 2, I think it lost against Spirited away but I might confuse the years there….)

        Which is why HTTYD has a good chance, none of the previous movies won so having the maybe last one win would be a good way to honour the whole Franchise. That gives it an edge imho. And there is no danger that either Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli or Laika turn up with a big surprise.

      4. Oh, as for Toy Story 2, the reason it never won is because the animated film category was created the year after it came out. You are right that Spirited Away did win, but that was in the second year of the category’s existence. Shrek won the first, Spirited Away the second, beating Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch and a couple of others.

      5. I didn’t…for one, because Shrek doesn’t stand on its own. It only works in relation to better movies.

        Two, if you see it as a parody, it isn’t a particularly clever one, because it actually does exactly the same thing it parodies in the end.

        and Three, the movement of the hair in Monsters inc is just way more impressive than the “humans” in Shrek. Which is part of the reason why Monsters inc aged better on a technical level.

      6. Fair points. Honestly, I didn’t really engage with Shrek as critically as that back in the day, though. I just thought it was cute, clever, and refreshing, feeling very much like the next step in the evolution of the animated kids movie as well as a proactive update on the Disney princess archetype.

        It’s only when I watch the movie now that I realize how much the enjoyment was sort of linked to that specific time and cultural moment. Monsters, Inc., however, is as equally delightful now as then. History has clearly judged the true victor here.

  2. You know im not a fan of these movies. Mainly coz the lead has this string american accent while the rest have scottish accents and other little things like that bother me. However for the sake of my kids I took them. And agree it is a fitting end to tie up everything nicely and make sense of the dragon mythology too. Good job boys. Am hoping they dont follow toy story and do a 4th film

    1. “Mainly coz the lead has this string American accent while the rest have Scottish accents and other little things like that bother me.”

      Fair point. It’s not just Hiccup – Jay Baruchel – with the American accent. Technically, Baruchel is actually Canadian, but he’s not exactly saying aboot instead of about. Most of his friends are just running with their natural accents as well – Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and I was going to say T.J. Miller but apparently they recast him with a soundalike voice actor for this movie.

      “And agree it is a fitting end to tie up everything nicely and make sense of the dragon mythology too.”

      They truly did save their best for last. It’s refreshing to see a film trilogy go out with easily its best movie.

      “Am hoping they dont follow toy story and do a 4th film”

      Agreed. Toy Story 3’s ending is so epically perfect, but now the existence of a 4th film, even if it’s pretty good, will always mess with that. Our final memory of this franchise on the big screen won’t be Andy saying goodbye to the toys. Feels wrong. Similarly, it would feel entirely wrong to do another HTTYD after this. As of right now, all the interviews I’ve read with the people involved, chiefly Baruchel and the writer-director, indicate this truly is meant to be the end. That’s why there’s such a surprising finality to that ending.

      I guess you could always just come back and do another set of movies about Hiccup and Toothless’ kids, but that feels more like a “let’s do another animated show for Netflix” kind of thing instead of an actual movie. However, even that doesn’t appear to be in the offing. (Also, I think DreamWorks’ deal with Netflix is over. They signed a big pact with Hulu last year or the year before. So, if there was another TV show it might go there instead of Netflix, though I’m not sure.)

  3. I used to watch the first movie every morning five days a week. When I saw this movie, I was choking back tears, because my favorite part as a child is when Hiccup puts his hand on Toothless’s head. The part in the third movie when he takes it off is when I started to cry.

    1. That’s the moment that got me, too, and I’m not someone who has much of a background with this franchise. I didn’t watch the first two movies all that often, and I didn’t go into this one with particularly high expectations. However, the beautiful, dramatic synergy of closing on Hiccup saying goodbye to Toothless through the hand-on-the-head motion and then reuniting years later as an adult and teaching his kid to the hand-on-the-head motion – I tear up just thinking about it.

      Interestingly, just listened to an interview with the director today. He says they’ve known this was going to be a trilogy after the first film came out. When Katzenberg asked him to prepare a sequel, he instead pitched the idea of turning it into a trilogy, one which would end with explaining why exactly the first movie opens with Hiccup explaining that there used to be dragons when he was a kid. That line comes from the books, and when the author of the books told the director she was planning on circling back to that in her final book he thought he’d do the same thing in his movie. He just had to make How To Train Your Dragon 2 first before he could get there, and then when Katzenberg left DreamWorks after the sale he had to pitch his new bosses at Universal on the idea of finishing the trilogy instead of churning out sequels and spinoffs and anything else they might want. Glad he stuck to his guns and finally gave us the ending he’d been envisioning for a half decade.

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