The Pitch: Toothless, the cat-like dragon, and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the boy Viking who became king, are back in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. This is the final chapter in director Dean DeBlois’ trilogy of children’s fantasy films based on Cressida Cowell’s best-selling books. The Hidden World sees Toothless and Hiccup struggling to survive in a poacher-infested society, where the general population still sees winged creatures as monstrous terrors. If only people would listen. Regardless, the serpent and boy-king venture to new lands in hopes of finding sanctuary for Toothless and his kind. Perhaps along the way, they’ll find the “Hidden World” of old myth, where dragons can be free. And love. And maturity. And other positive family themes.
Kids, read this part of the review: Welcome, young readers and filmgoers. If you are reading this as a result of an accidental ad-click, please be sure that you actually want to read this.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a fun movie. It’s a good time at the theater, with endearing characters, interesting effects, and a nice enough story. And Toothless is the star this time, for sure. It’s fun to watch Toothless and Hiccup grow up, and even if the movie makes you a little sad at times, you’ll feel good for the two in the end. Promise. There are great lessons about friendship and treating animals with respect that are important and useful here as well. Be warned, though: There are some scary parts as well. The villain is Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), and he’s cruel to dragons, even Toothless. Why? Because he just doesn’t understand how friendly dragons, animals, and pets can be to us humans. He also has his own attack dragons that look like scorpions that spit green bile. Honestly? It’s pretty gross.
This movie also looks like it’s made out of every crayon in the Crayola box. There’s even a cave full of dragons that looks like an aquarium. Hiccup, who’s all grown up now, has a flaming sword, and tries his hardest to rescue and protect dragons. Ruffnut, from the first two movies, is back and still played by Kristen Wiig. She’s crazy funny, and she has good jokes about her moldy hair and oversharing. But best of all, this is a movie for kids and grown-ups with lots of stuff for everyone.
Adults and parents, read this part of the review: Kids gone? Okay, because this movie plays like Chuck Jones on hallucinogens. You’ll feel like a cat watching a fish tank. Let me explain further, because this writer-dad almost checked out after a while until things took a turn for the awesome.
Ethereal echoes (courtesy of Jónsi) emanate. Two warriors (Hiccup and his partner Astrid, played by America Ferrara) explore the sea atop a dragon. They’re searching for Toothless, and suddenly, they fly deep into a waterfall in the middle of the ocean and plummet into a watery cave with phosphorescent blue lights. It’s the proverbial journey into a great beyond. The pair realize they’re entering what appears to be an eternal and endless chamber of lights, colors, and other magical sensations. They’re in the “Hidden World” of dragons, and what a sight it is.
John Powell, the film’s composer, ups the magisterial as he gives it his all, deploying chimes and bells and flutes as he pursues DeBlois’ ceaselessly epic imagery. There are glowing orange baby dragon eggs. Lamp-light critters fluttering in packs like lightning bugs. Astrid’s dragon begins to glow with rainbow-colored shapes and patterns because of the atmosphere. Bright coral lies atop gigantic cavernous spires. Dragons fly everywhere in perfect harmony and formations that would put Canadian geese to shame. If we’re being art school about it, the sequence recalls Goya’s “Colossus”, with a rave aesthetic filter sprayed on top. It’s art in the romantic style; the pupils widen.
And The Hidden World has a few more moments like this. What starts as a fairly stock sword-and-slither adventure emerges into a tale of putting-money-on-the-table magic with gob-smacking sights. As a bonus element of The Hidden World‘s honest grandeur, the emotions once again come through. What starts as a hero’s quest for change eventually grabs you by the eyes and plays out a real tale about growing pains and doing the right thing when the adults don’t necessarily understand. When themes of world-weariness transcend kiddie theatrics on the grounds of great presentation, that’s something to brag about.
To put it even more simply, even if the first hour is fairly tedious (endless busy work re-introducing and naming characters and dragons), does this movie ever come through and stick the landing in the second with its impressive visuals and beating heart. Some images might endure here. (Did DeBlois get lost in the J.M.W. Turner wing at a museum? The look comes through.) Ominous horizons and dark lights with flickers of light and other splendors over the horizon. Dragons soar against vivid Northern Lights. Boats lurch ominously in the mists. Sand and grass are animated in robust detail. It’s a lot of good-looking stuff.
Take a grand scene from around the 60-minute mark. DeBlois deploys an aerial ballet between Toothless and a female counterpart that’s akin to watching underwater figure skating. The music’s almost Tchaikovsky-esque, with beautiful strings, and the contrasting creatures fly in curiously inventive patterns inside the maelstrom of a grandiose storm. It’s frightening in one breath, but absolutely watchable with its painterly grace in the next. DeBlois knows how to place objects against the overwhelming size of the sky for impact, as the two animals form a yin and yang pattern, twirling up and down, sharing mating tactics with fire bursts, glances, and well-designed purrs on the audio track. There’s no dialogue here. It runs deeper, artier, than the average creature-kid feature.
The Dreamworks Animation brand had become synonymous with smirking wise-assery before its end, but the How to Train Your Dragon films always seemed a little more grounded. DeBlois is interested in human-animal connections that elevate his films above standard family distraction. So even if you’re taking the wee’uns to this, at least it’s a feast for the eyes and mind alike.
The Verdict: Even if the run-up takes its time, DeBlois sticks the landing – for this film, for his trilogy – and makes something that feels a bit more knowing in its themes: Life goes on, protect the ones you love, and enjoy the world we all share. There are far greater crimes children’s films can commit than positive messaging. It’s funny to think, though: all these positive images and ideas out of a cartoon about dragons. Laughs are had, tears may be shed, and the notion of major motion picture animation’s deeply expressive capabilities shines brightly within How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Where’s It Playing? Opens wide February 22. And in a rare recommendation, we’d suggest seeing this in 3D. The “hidden world” in the title has more than enough whiz-bang to justify the price hike.