(2018—Director: Dean DeBlois)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
Greetings, cinema of 2019!
Back in my review for Incredibles 2, I mentioned how the 2008 DreamWorks animated action comedy Kung Fu Panda served as a prelude of sorts to Disney-Pixar’s WALL•E, which all but solidified my affinity for feature animation. It was a three-fold realization of taking not just animation and Disney-Pixar seriously, but of taking DreamWorks Animation (DWA) seriously as well. Since 2001’s Shrek, many have regarded DWA as the lesser CGI feature animation studio compared to Pixar, prone to favoring celebrity voices and trendy pop culture references to generate cheap laughs over genuine and lasting heart. Kung Fu Panda and its 2011 and 2016 sequels proved to me that DWA could still focus on comedic gags without sacrificing action-packed thrills in a refreshing historical-cultural setting.
It turned out, though, that most others came to a greater respect for DWA a couple of years after Kung Fu Panda. With the release of How to Train Your Dragon, a loose adaptation of the novel series written by Cressida Cowell from 2003 to 2015, audiences began to see DWA in a new light. This effect has carried over from 2010 all the way to 2019 with the release of the third and presumably final installment (subtitled The Hidden World), though I must confess that the franchise does not enthrall me to the same exact loftiness it does for others.
Six years following the first film’s events and one year since becoming the chief of Berk, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), his trusty Night Fury dragon Toothless, and their fellow Viking dragon-riders continue to free captured dragons and take them back to their Viking-dragon seaside utopia. Growing concerns from village blacksmith Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson) over Berk’s overcrowding of dragons force Hiccup to consider migrating everyone to a natural underground dragon sanctuary his late father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler, in flashbacks) referred to as “the hidden world”. Before they can attempt to reach that fabled destination, however, Hiccup must avoid losing Toothless, whose alpha status lets him control other dragons, to the notorious and cunning Night Fury hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), who will try to lure Toothless with a most beguiling and rare weapon—a female “Light” Fury.
One undeniable strength of the How to Train Your Dragon series is its epic visual scale. The flying scenes in particular have stood out from entry to entry—the first date/invisibility lesson as well as the entrance into the dazzling titular location serving as The Hidden World’s most memorable contributions. The long take in the opening action scene was also an impressive touch. Gil Zimmerman as the trilogy’s head of layout deserves much credit, as does legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins as the trilogy’s visual consultant.
The Dragon franchise’s deep emotional foundation lies in the bond between Hiccup and Toothless. Still, now that the trilogy has concluded, I have come to recognize two issues I have with the series as a whole.
First, the main antagonists have disappointed in some way across all three Dragon movies: 2010’s greater focus on Hiccup’s budding friendship with Toothless more than compensated for the plot’s afterthought of a giant “tax collector”-like Red Death dragon. 2014, meanwhile, featured yet another boring world conqueror in Drago Bludvist (a forgettable Djimon Hounsou) wielding a Bewilderbeast, yet another giant dragon. The Hidden World’s Grimmel is by far my favorite villain of the franchise. Grimmel deviously exploits the attraction between two members of a dragon species he believes to have hunted to extinction—a testament to his renowned love for the hunt. Yet while his initial meeting with Hiccup makes for one of the series’ best non-flying scenes, his twisted game of wits with the young chief still falls short of meshing firmly with the story’s epic scale. The utter irrelevance of the foreign warlords Grimmel occasionally allies with, coupled with their extreme interpretation of Hiccup’s peaceful crusade as placing dragons on the same pedestal as humans, further adds to the weak antagonist element.
That brings me to the second issue I have with the Dragon trilogy overall—the fading relevance of its supporting ensemble, exacerbated by the modern-sounding deliveries of on-the-nose dialogue for the younger characters. 2010 saw a scrawny Hiccup striving to prove himself to his village and especially his father, akin to a timid individual determined to gain the respect of bully-like figures via unorthodox means (i.e., taming mighty dragons rather than killing them). Once Hiccup has achieved that, so too have the roles of his doubters been largely satisfied. The flashbacks featuring the late Stoick and a younger Hiccup (A.J. Kane, in his feature debut) have much heart, while female fraternal twin Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and her self-centered ramblings during her brief detainment by Grimmel make for an hilarious comic aside. Beyond those, writer-director Dean DeBlois’ script gives the remaining support slack leftovers: The brash Snotlout (Jonah Hill) holds a bizarre romantic interest for Hiccup’s widowed mother Valka (Cate Blanchett, a welcome addition in 2014), roping in disinterested former dragon hunter turned ally Eret (Kit Harrington, severely underused) into the barest trace of a rivalry. The Hidden World also makes an understandable yet nonetheless strange effort to showcase Justin Rupple as T.J. Miller’s replacement voice actor for male fraternal twin Tuffnut. Lastly, Hiccup’s courtship with Astrid Hofferson (America Ferrera), despite their support for one another, has since petered out into a casual and predictable stroll towards marriage (cue “eww, commitment” comments).
Despite those franchise-wide snags, How to Train Your Dragon has always managed to reorient itself back to the developing relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, between mankind and dragons. The Hidden World successfully caps off the trilogy’s epic narrative with the satisfying tone of an open-ended legend, leaving it to modern viewers to determine how it should end. With their Dragon trilogy complete, DreamWorks Animation has set a worthy standard for itself, regardless of the inconsistent quality of its overall output, that should carry it into the 2020s with confidence.
(Parental Note: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has been rated PG by the MPAA “for adventure action and some mild rude humor.” It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “mild threat, violence,” and language”, and A-II (Adults & adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “characters in peril, much thoroughly stylized combat, mythological references, and fleeting childish scatological humor.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.