Film | How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World - a final flourish
Having inherited the chiefdom of Berk from Stoic (Gerard Butler) following his father’s death, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has continued to reinvent the viking outpost as a sanctuary for dragon-kind — aided as ever by best friend and budding alpha Toothless. When a new threat emerges in the shape of Grimmel, a dragon killer who specialises in the endangered Night Fury, of which Toothless is one of the few remaining specimens, Hiccup, reluctant to wage another war, chooses instead to run — to seek out the legendary ‘Hidden World’ from which all dragons are believed to originate. En route, Toothless becomes infatuated with a Light Fury, a preoccupation that increasingly leaves Hiccup feeling isolated and alone — misconceptions that Astrid (America Farerra) struggles to assuage.
Animated franchises are nothing new, with DreamWorks Animation in particular being responsible for many of the best known examples — from the groundbreaking Shrek series to the Kung-Fu Panda and Madagascar trilogies that followed. Few, however, have sought to tell a single overarching story, and none — not even Pixar’s beloved Toy Story triptych — have been seen to completion by the original writer-director. Dean DeBlois might have collaborated with Chris Sanders and Will Davies on the first How To Train Your Dragon, adapted from Cressida Cowell’s book of the same name, but he alone has seen it through to the end. And what an ending it is!
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World might lack the momentum of the first movie and the spectacle of the second, opting instead for a gentler pace and more intimate focus, but what it lacks in dynamo and drama it more than makes up for in depth. Hiccup is unlike other heroes, either in animation or in fantasy cinema more generally, and rather than have him complete his hero’s journey and claim his just deserts DeBlois has him question his chosen path and contemplate another. And not just a minor course correction either, but a re-evaluation of the conservative views of a father he has spent the previous two films trying to resist and relegate to the past. Could it be that humans and dragons aren’t meant to co-exist after all? Quite a quandary for a kid’s film; quite a reversal for such a progressive series. That said, hope of a better future is never truly lost.
Whereas previous films have seen Hiccup establish a friendship with Toothless and reconnect with estranged family members this is really the first film that has explored his relationship with Astrid, despite the fact that they have been flirting with a romance since they set aside their differences in the original. Hiccup has never tried to win the girl, or expected anything at all from Astrid, and instead the pair spend much of the film grappling with their obligations to the community as well as their responsibilities to each other. She may have a supporting role in the narrative, but her support of Hiccup is never taken for granted and her towering strength receives the utmost respect of the wider community. They really are animation’s ultimate empowered couple.
As much as The Hidden World is about Hiccup coming to terms with his new role as chief and learning from his past mistakes, the film also promotes Toothless to co-lead for really the first time. The Night Fury has always been more of a peer than a pet to Hiccup, as is symbolised by their near-identical disabilities and demonstrated by their parallel rises to power, but this movie more than any other treats them as equals — each with their own priorities and responsibilities. That the largely silent sequences featuring Toothless and another dragon are among the film’s most emotional (overshadowed only by the breathlessly heartfelt finale) is testament to the consistent and cumulative quality of his characterisation, animation and development over all three films. Four, of you consider his passing resemblance to the titular alien in DeBlois’ own Lilo & Stitch.
This is the case for the world of Berk and its resident vikings, too. While The Hidden World might be the weakest film of the trilogy (it feels relatively slight and understated by comparison, squandering characters introduced in the first sequel) the saga has already reached such heights that, to once again reference Pixar’s Toy Story, it hardly matters at this point if it’s flying or falling with style. Dean DeBlois has taken Hiccup and Toothless on a captivating, formative and unforgettable journey, and has ended their universally adored story on his own terms — can there be anything more respectable, satisfying and, yes, bittersweet than that?