In hindsight, 2010 was a year for animation that would help define the next decade in mainstream animation. Pixar concluded a near-perfect fifteen year run of films by wrapping up their Toy Story trilogy, and with Tangled, Disney revamped their princess films without the need for male saviors. And yes, the world was also cursed with the Minions and the first Despicable Me film. But with the introduction of How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks made a more mature, action-centered animated film, completely unlike the Shreks and Bee Movies that had come before. How to Train Your Dragon was a simple idea, executed well and without the fart jokes and pop-culture references that defined the animation landscape at that time.
Nine years later, the franchise (supposedly) concludes with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – a rarity for a successful series like this to get out early instead of running out of gas. The Hidden World takes place a year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2, when Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) became the leader of the viking town Berk after the passing of his father. In the first two films, Hiccup turned Berk from a dragon-fearing land, into an idyllic home for vikings and dragons to coexist.
Threatening Hiccup’s paradise is Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who has taken out all of the Night Fury dragons. Except one: Hiccup’s best friend, the adorable Toothless. Hiccup must protect Berk – his first major challenge as the town’s leader – meanwhile Toothless may have also fallen in love with a female dragon, called a “Light Fury.” The challenges of oncoming danger and newfound love face Hiccup and Toothless, and as they grow into new roles, their friendship might be tested in the process.
In the first two installments, Hiccup’s journey was a personal insular one, centered around him discovering who he is and what kind of person he wants to eventually become. But with The Hidden World’s threats from Grimmel, Hiccup has to protect more than just himself, he has to stand up and become a true leader to his people. Because of this, The Hidden World makes Berk feel more vibrant and alive than it ever has before. Returning writer and director Dean DeBlois does a nice job making this large mass of people feel like a living, breathing community, with each person serving their own purpose.
Unfortunately, this only works on a large scale, and when DeBlois focuses on the secondary characters – particularly female characters – the film falters. America Ferrara’s Astrid has always been defined by her power, usually a better fighter and leader than her boyfriend, Hiccup. But in this final installment, she’s mostly defined by the people of Berk’s interest in watching the couple finally get married. Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) – who the second film focused on – does little more than play a desired object for Jonah Hill’s Snotloud.
As should be expected, The Hidden World is at its most brilliant when it actually focuses on the dragons. How to Train Your Dragon is still stunning when the screen is filled with varying dragons, each with their own attributes and styles. But this series has always been at its strongest when it focused on the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, and The Hidden World is smart to spotlight their bond in this last chapter. Toothless’s attempts at attracting his new love interest leads to the film’s funniest sequence, and the fantastic final moments between Toothless and Hiccup pack an emotional wallop that is rarely seen in DreamWorks’ animated films.
Fitting conclusions rarely occur for animated films, but How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World makes the case that getting out while on top should be the way for the franchises to go. The Hidden World ends this series on a high note by focusing on the core of what has always made these films work and saying goodbye to them at this point just feel right.