As I walked out of the cinema after watching How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I was struck by an odd moment of existentialism as a critic. Just how far should I go when picking this movie apart for its flaws (and yes, there are flaws). On the one hand, I get that this movie is a fun family flick and not really aspiring to be anything more than that. On the other hand, a movie can still have thought provoking narrative without being “dumbed down” and I feel it would be a disservice to to treat this film lightly simply because it is a family movie. With all of that in mind, I will review How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World with the same criteria I would use for any other film. Don’t get me wrong – the movie is an enjoyable enough romp. I simply feel that it lacks the punch of the earlier films. Let’s get to it then.
For the most part, the movie is gorgeous – I cannot recall seeing so many different types of dragons in motion as there are in this flick. I cannot even begin to fathom how much time DreamWorks Animation spent on designing all of these draagons, rendering their 3D models, animating them and getting them all into the air. There are also some very impressive visual effects for fire and smoke. The titular Hidden World is an especially gorgeous place with crystal clusters, energy particles and a sort of blacklight effect on the dragons’ scales. My only real gripe is that the human characters still have such an artificial “plastic” look; this is especially noticeable in their facial expressions. I get that the animators were not going for photo-realistic humans but having these characters with their artificial look appear right next to convincing atmosphere and environments has always been a bit jarring in my opinion. To be fair, this is common from many CGI studios and I am not trying to pick on DreamWorks Animation for this. If anything it makes it easier for toy companies to produce more accurate action figures, I suppose.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World begins with Hiccup (once again voiced by Jay Baruchel) leading the other dragon-riders during a raid to free trapped dragons. The rescued dragons are taken to the Riders’ base – Berk. It seems that the massive dragon population at Berk is straining the community’s resources. Hiccup is obsessed with finding a mysterious realm his father told him about known as the Hidden World. At the same time, the dragon trappers have recruited a new bad guy named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) who has earned a reputation for himself by killing Night Furies (the same species of dragon as Hiccup’s pal, Toothless.) Grimmel uses a captured white dragon – dubbed a light fury – in an attempt to capture Toothless. After a particularly devastating encounter with Grimmel that results in the destruction of several buildings at Berk, Hiccup urges his fellow colonists to find the Hidden World so they can live safely there. Meanwhile, Toothless and the Light Fury become quite taken with each other and Hiccup helps Toothless to romance the mysterious white dragon (this nicely complements Hiccup’s own growing relationship with Astrid.)
There is a lot going on with this film and I find that the pacing feels a bit rushed as a result. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a movie that wants to be about something but it cannot decide what that might be. There are strong themes of love between Hiccup and Astrid, Toothless and the Light Fury and even Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless. The movie dabbles with the concept of loving something enough to let it go. Toothless explores what it is like to live among other dragons in their own world. The film pokes about thought provoking scenes like these but never stays for long. It is simply on to the next scene. This is especially obvious with the other Dragon-Riders like Valka and Gobber who primarily serve as comic relief and back-up troops for the action scenes. I really did enjoy this movie but I would have appreciated a more focused plot.
The voice talent is one of the strong points of the movie. Many of the actors from the previous films have returned to reprise their roles and the chemistry between the performers – especially Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera – really comes through. There is a wonderful scene showing a young Hiccup and his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) who deeply misses his wife and explains to his son why he won’t “find” another mommy. I find the casting of F. Murray Abraham to be odd but even I have to admit that he helps to make Grimmel an intimidating foe.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a beautiful and fun film appropriate for the entire family. While I find it to be the weakest movie in the trilogy, there is enough fun and action here to make it worth watching.